Got the rockin’ pneumonia; or, On Writing About Current Events

I was thinking about the hazards of writing current events poetry, and asked some poet friends if we talked about Covid in our poems are we not in danger of having them become dated?

One argued that we are writing poems out of a specific experience, out of an extraordinary time.

But don’t all times feel extraordinary when we’re in them? 9/11, World War I, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of a parent — all of them were times that felt catastrophic to the individuals inside them. How to write a good poem that transcends its extraordinary time to encompass all extraordinary times? Or should that even be a goal? Why not linger in the time and be frank about it?

Another person called attention to Yeats’s Easter 1916 as a poem grounded in a specific experience but a poem that has transcended the time of that experience. It is a wonderful poem, which certainly by the title grounds us firmly in time, though makes the assumption the reader will understand the reference to the Irish uprising. That phrase, though, “terrible beauty,” captures the imagination and takes me in any number of directions far from Irish soil. And the naming of the dead is an ancient rite that we still take part in. The movement of the poem to the unceasing natural world is both a common approach of putting us in our place and also effective, a useful reminder of the fleeting nature of our existence. But even though he wrote it shortly after the event, the poem already feels like a historic, long view. It has a vital distance, the “I” a distant onlooker from the start, already elegiac.

Is it this real or perceived distance that offers an avenue into the power of the poem? I don’t know.

We in conversation about this agreed that something happens sometimes with a Big Event; its moniker becomes a shorthand for a layered mishmosh of received wisdom and assumptions and perceptions, and that can be hazardous for a poem. We also agreed that any particular person’s “how I suffered during X event” is not likely to make for a very good poem. Something needs to happen in a poem, some kind of specificity, some kind of universality.

Of course, this is true for any poem, not just a poem rooted in a Big Event. Does every extraordinary moment have its poem? Do each of us inside every extraordinary moment have our poem?

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