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Poetry and Reemergence

Why has poetry enjoyed such a renaissance in a time of pandemic? Writing in The New Statesman, Katy Shaw of Northumbria University suggests, “In moments of crisis, certain cultural forms come to the fore, and in the midst of Covid-19, poetry has found its calling. . . . The unique intersection of time and space provided by lockdown” has “created the conditions . . . for a poetry renaissance.”[1] This season, Poetry Matters explores how, as we emerge from the first season of living with pandemic, poetry has come forward as a cultural mode that speaks both to our current situation and efforts to imagine a future beyond the season of Covid.

As a first step, this initiative considers the range of forces that have brought poetry to the forefront for so many this past season—why poetry, as Vanity Fair notes, has been “having a moment,”[2] why poetry as a mode of language feels both so appropriate to, and valuable for, our times. We also consider the potential of poetry, as formed language and aesthetic experience, to serve as resource for imagining days beyond this season of pandemic—and for thinking toward what we call, building upon a concept from G.H. Lewes, “reemergence.”[3]

This project initially grew from a hunch that during the first weeks of Covid-19, as we were living in isolation from one another, withdrawn into our own rooms and on our own time, poetry—as mode of expression, register of language, and art form—came to matter more. We had more time and better conditions than usual under which to read; many people took books down off shelves that they’d meant to get to at some point and could turn to, unexpectedly, now. As Catherine O’Neill Grace notes, many felt somewhat like Emily Dickinson as recluse, working on a small scale even while grappling with cultural and philosophical issues of great magnitude.[4]

The mode of “slow time”[5] many entered fostered the kind of attention that belongs to poetry—unhurried, quiet, involving patient focus, conducive to gradually unfolding awareness and discovery. Britain’s Poet Laureate Simon Armitage observes: poetry “asks us just to focus, and think, and be contemplative […], to be considerate of language, to be considerate of each other and the world.”[6] Conditions were right for such ruminative work, the slow and close reading that poetry demands and rewards. Poetry also felt welcome because it was quickly shareable as a mode of communication, as we sought to create bridges through language to one another—send signals of connection, empathy, encouragement across distances, often via email.

Moreover, poetry evoked the sensory vibrancy that daily life during the early days of Covid could not offer—senses of vivid sight, fragrance, sound, and touch. Poetry brought such sensory richness to the confinement and mutedness of our immediate surroundings. It provided sensory wealth amid what often felt like sensory deficit. It also helped to make the most of what felt like “pandemic time”—helped to hone states of mind and modes of language equipped for attending both to the details of the moment, the fine grain of days at home (as Shaw notes, poetry is especially well prepared to capture “thoughts on the rapidly-shifting contexts of lockdown life”) and to the archives, as people were ready to reach to the past and savour the fourth dimension—to bring to the surface photos, letters, songs and essays from other times.

And as a mode of language alternative to ordinary language used for daily communication,[7] poetry also offers eloquence for extraordinary times. It helps to bring to fine articulateness states of mind and feeling that are radically unfamiliar, as we seek to make sense of what we are navigating.

Our working hypothesis is that at this point, after the first months of pandemic, poetry can help to guide cultural thinking toward “reemergence” from what we have been living this past year—and help us imagine a changed future. One leading idea issuing from times of pandemic has been that, as exceptional circumstances are forcing a sea-change in our practices, we have opportunity to move toward new paradigms. We consider how poetry offers resources for transformed and transformational thinking.

Accordingly, this project explores how poetry, beyond helping to bring order, relief, and fluency during a time of confusion, can also destabilize in generative ways. This project looks to the potential for poetry to make us uncomfortable—and to do so in constructive ways that can help us imagine, as Shaw notes, “the kind of world we want to think beyond lockdown.”

How and why might poetry offer such resources? Pursuing this collaborative inquiry, we turn less to the themes of poetry, more to its forms—and rather than address poetry that is readily accessible, we accent challenging poetry which diverges in idiom, sometimes defiantly, from mainstream language practice. Such poetry provides, first, a register markedly alternative to the practical discourses of “stay safe” that surround us now. It can us venture beyond what can feel like the aridity of terms such as “social distancing” and “self-isolation”—which, if useful for maintaining balance at this cultural moment, also mark limits beyond which we seek eventually to reach. Poetry, with its sensory richness and wildcard language, can help to move beyond the discourse of safety and the sanitizer.[8] Through its nonnormative verbal work, poetry can also offer a language for resistance. As Shaw suggests, “Over the last four months, poetry has emerged as a dynamic form capable of contesting statistics, government briefings and media reports by offering a counter-narrative about our lives in lockdown.”[9]

To invoke Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, in circumventing ordinary usages, poetic language also serves to “roughen” language, defamiliarizing our habitual ways of thinking and reading environments and experiences, pressing us beyond these.[10] Given this, it can also help to cultivate unusual modes of attention, in kind and direction, through engendering what media theorist N. Katherine Hayles theorizes as “deep” attention different from, even counter to, our pervasive modes of internet-attuned “hyperattention.”[11] The aesthetic experience of poetry often also alters our sense of time—away from “clock time” to alternative senses of temporality.

Building on the thought of early twentieth-century theorist and critic I.A. Richards, we further suggest that through the aesthetic experience it generates, poetry can help to form and re-form pathways of thought.[12]Central to this step of the exploration are Richards’ pioneering conceptual investigations of the 1920s into the “plasticity” of the mind and what he called the “mind of the future,” formed through aesthetic experiences, which Richards often reads as fostering beneficial coordination of neurological impulses.[13] We join his conceptual forays with contemporary thought on neuroplasticity and the concept of “emergence,” from theorists such as Norman Doidge, Daniel Levitin, Jessica Grahn, Laurel Trainor, and V.S. Ramachandran.

For this project, especially of interest are ways that poetry can help to attune attention to what phenomenology calls qualia—a register of sensory experience often muted by ordinary experience. The contemporary emphasis on high-speed communications and efficient workflow often interferes with conditions under which to attend carefully to the richness of moments, objects, and spaces, states of mind and feeling, which the early days of Covid brought so vividly to the fore—birdsong out the window, sensory abundance, a sudden flowering of sight, sound, or fragrance—which can foster states of larger awareness beyond the practical, a sense of grace sustained under pressure. We read attention to qualia as newly eroded by current efforts during a time of pandemic to achieve a “new normal,” with all that this discourse involves. Heightened attention to qualiathrough poetry, involving organizing aesthetic experience toward a sense of what I.A. Richards calls “freedom and fullness of life,”[14] can help to counter such erosion. Poetry also helps to engender states of attention ready to engage the experience of the qualia of the archive—the fragrance and texture of musty letters, the details of photos and handwriting, and the specifics of lives of other times toward which these gesture.

Ultimately, we suggest that engagement with poetry can help to counter some of the more unwelcome implications of current reconstructive discourse associated with pandemic, and contribute in diverse ways to transformed states of mind, awareness, and cultural practice. These, in turn, can help to imagine a transformed future, for when we reemerge, on the other side of these times.

--Miranda Hickman, with Poetry Matters (2020-21)


[1] Katy Shaw, “Why Poetry is Enjoying a Renaissance.” The New Statesman 21 July 2020.

[2] Keziah Weir, “Why Poetry is Having a Moment Amid the Global Quarantine,” Vanity Fair 30 April 2020.

[3] On “emergence,” see also Paul Humphreys, Emergence (Oxford UP, 2016).

[4] Grace O’ Neill, “A Solitude of Space,” Wellesley Magazine Summer 2020.

[5] With “slow time” from Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” we point both to a temporality distinctive to the season of Covid and link it to the context of “slow” movements that have appeared over the last twenty years, associated with commentators such as Carl Honoré (In Praise of Slow, 2004). On “slow time” and Romantic poetry, see Jonathan Sachs, “Slow Time,” PMLA, 134.2 (March 2019): 315–331.

[6] Simon Armitage, “Lockdown: Simon Armitage Writes a Poem About Coronavirus Outbreak.” Guardian 20 March 2020.

[7] See Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917), on the distinction between “poetic” language and “practical” and “ordinary language.” Shklovsky engages the Aristotelian idea that poetic language appears “strange” and “wonderful,” in part through what he calls “roughening”—techniques aimed to disrupt ordinary perception. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, Translated and with an Introduction by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 3-24.

[8] This dimension of our thought is indebted to Nicole Brossard, “Poetic Politics,” on instances in which “desire” clashes with “ordinary usage,” and how poetic language can both avoid replicating the assumptions of dominant culture through exploration and ludic practice and allow for “intervention.” Nicole Brossard: Selections (Poets for the Millennium), introduction by Jennifer Moxley (University of California Press, 2010), 179-192.

[9] See Brossard on poetic language as allowing for forms of “transgression” and “subversion,” distance on ordinary usages and experience, culturally dominant frameworks of values.

[10] Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917). “In studying poetic speech in its phonetic and lexical structure as well as in its characteristic distribution of words and in the characteristic thought structures compounded from the words, we find everywhere the artistic trademark—that is, we find material obviously created to remove the automatism of perception; the author's purpose is to create the vision which results from that deautomatized perception. A work is created 'artistically' so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception. As a result of this lingering, the object is perceived not in its extension in space, but, so to speak, in its continuity. Thus ‘poetic language’ gives satisfaction. . . The language of poetry is, then, a difficult, roughened, impeded language” (Lemon and Reis, 21-22).

[11] N. Katherine Hayles, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes.” Profession (2007): 187-199.

[12] I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924). Routledge, 2001.

[13] Richards, Practical Criticism (1929), Harcourt Brace & Company, 2009: “mind of the future,” 322.

[14] Richards, Principles, 121.

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