Last November when I shared Pablo Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet,” I didn’t realize that a couple of weeks later, a new anthology would be released titled after lines from the same poem.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), is pure manna for the heart and soul, just when we need it most.
Last spring, while we were all frantically washing our hands, stressing over toilet paper and disinfectant wipes, and adjusting to lockdown restrictions, Ms. Quinn “reached out to poets across the country to see if, and what, they were writing under quarantine.” She was so moved by the response that she began collecting and curating the poems arriving in her inbox.
These poets voiced our collective shock, grief, fears, and hopes — an array of layered emotions many of us did not yet have a language for. From their unique, diverse perspectives, they were able to paint an intimate portrait of a world woefully attuned to this exotic moment in history.
Strange, to experience what could never have been imagined, to step into an altered reality.
Sudden, to have life, livelihood, routines, priorities upended in the blink of an eye.
The 107 poets featured in this anthology vary by age, gender, and sexuality, and employ different styles and poetic forms to unmask human fragility, vulnerability and resilience in trying times. Some of the poems were quite cathartic, moving me to tears.
Here are two that really spoke to me. The first describes precisely how I made it through the past year, and the second reinforces my gratitude for the power of poetry to heal, sustain, and connect.
MY HEART CANNOT ACCEPT IT ALL by Susan Kinsolving Forgive yourself for thinking small for cooking soups, ignoring blight. The mind cannot contain it all despite intent and wherewithal; it's little stuff that brings delight: a book, a drink. Keeping thinking small. A bubble bath? An odd phone call? (Resisting all those gigabytes!) Your mind will not embrace it all. Quarantine is one long haul as days grow long, so do the nights. Forgive yourself for thinking small: popcorn, TV, more alcohol? There's no need to be contrite. My mind cannot believe it all, this vast and shocking viral sprawl, infections with no end in sight. Forgive me please. I'm thinking small. My heart cannot accept it all.
HOW WILL THIS PANDEMIC AFFECT POETRY? by Julia Alvarez Will the lines be six feet apart? Will these hexameters be heroic like Homer's? (Will) (each) (word) (have) (to) (be) (masked) (?) Will there be poetry insecurity? Will there be enough poetry to go around? Will poems be our preferred form of travel? Will we undertake odysseys searching for Ithacas inside us? Will poetry go viral? Will its dis/ease infect us? Will it help build up antibodies against indifference? Will poems be the only safe spaces where we can gather together: enter their immense silences, see snakes slithering inside sestinas, listen to nightingales singing on the boughs of odes -- hark! a lark in the terza rima, a hawk in a haiku? What if only poetry will see us through? What if this poem is the vaccine already working inside you? April 27-May 8, 2020 Weybridge, Vermont
It’s interesting to see the mindsets of these two poets during the early days of the pandemic. Since then, they, and we, have learned a lot more about the virus while developing our own coping strategies. Hope is on the horizon, yet this story is still unfolding with uncertain end. What is oddly comforting is that whatever happens, we’re in this thing together, united against a common invisible enemy.
ALICE QUINN, the executive director of the Poetry Society of America for eighteen years, was also the poetry editor at The New Yorker from 1987 to 2007 and an editor at Alfred A. Knopf for more than ten years prior to that. She teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and is the editor of a book of Elizabeth Bishop’s writings, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, as well as a forthcoming book of Bishop’s journals. She lives in New York City and Millerton, New York.
Enjoy this video of Alice Quinn speaking with Ron Charles at Politics & Prose, with guest poets reading their contributions.
TOGETHER IN A SUDDEN STRANGENESS: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic
edited by Alice Quinn
published by Knopf, November 2020
Poetry Anthology, 208 pp.
*Also available as an Audio Book and an eBook
The lovely and talented Karen Edmisten is hosting the Roundup at her blog today. Take her a cup of freshly brewed coffee and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Have a good weekend and stay safe.
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