The great Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie published a new poem on Twitter this week, prefaced by the briefest and most heartfelt of introductions: “After a weepy morning missing folks and thinking This Will Never End, I made myself go out. Wrote a rebalancing poem. Feel better now. Hope we all will soon.” The poem begins: “Trudging again / high on the grasslands / pallid winter sunshine / scarves of mist.” The narrator steps into the shadow of a tree for a moment, hears a mistle thrush, and a crow “cawing from a pylon”. In a moment, she breathes again and her mind becomes “branchy”. It’s a deceptively simple poem, terse, raw and dense. It has the feeling of being born from sadness and frustration – and then is lit up by a fleeing connection with nature. “Trudging again” feels like its keynote – so many are indeed “trudging” through the flatness and sadness of lockdown, in the week that the UK passed the grim and unforgivable milestone of 100,000 people dead.
Jamie’s was not the only work put into the world by a British poet this week, dealing, in one way or another, with the pandemic. The UK poet laureate, Simon Armitage, read a new work on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Titled The Song Thrush and the Mountain Ash, it has its narrator trying to connect with a loved one through the window of her room in a care home, reminding her of the names – for she has forgotten them – of her favourite bird and her favourite tree. And Brian Bilston seized the anger of the moment with his poem published on Twitter, Daily Briefing (“Faith in the government has sadly died. / Ministerial integrity has sadly died.”)
Perhaps it is only through poetry, dealing as it does in language compressed, transformed and transfigured, that sense will ever be made of the Covid-19 pandemic – at least internally and emotionally. Time has been tricksy this past year: months have fled like seconds and moments have lapsed into months. “Grief keeps a different clock,” said Scotland’s makar, Jackie Kay, in an interview on Newsnight this week, before reading a delicate poem about bereavement (her work Darling, from 2005). Poetry is the literary form most suited to insinuate itself into such temporal peculiarities, excavating some truth out of the strangeness. Poetry, too, keeps a different clock. This can be a boon for the reader in practical ways. When something more substantial – a novel, say – seems too much like uphill work, bringing one’s attention to something small, precise and honed can be a precious respite from all of that “trudging again”.
Poetry, of course, can also capture the public moment. Amanda Gorman’s riveting performance of her work The Hill We Climb, for the inauguration of President Biden in Washington DC last week, provided the ceremony with its most memorable and heavily charged episode, its power contained as much in the poet’s delivery as in the writing: in that moment, Gorman personified hope. She will address the coronavirus pandemic directly in a new work when she becomes the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl next month. But perhaps it is the quiet of a private small, simple, poem that is wanted when the mood is sombre, when time disobeys logic. Something like Ezra Pound’s famous early lyric: “And the days are not full enough / And the nights are not full enough / And life slips by like a field mouse / Not shaking the grass.”