During the two years of intermittent lockdown, writers had plenty of time to write, a state of affairs that becomes clearer and clearer as books generated by, and written during, the pandemic begin to appear.
Not only to write, but to write to, with or for another alleviates loneliness. More online writing groups and workshops than I can begin to count have sprouted; some already existed, but now they’re ubiquitous.
So here we still are, in the spring of 2022, perhaps a bit less alone. But now, as the pandemic begins to recede in at least parts of the world, something equally alarming has taken its place.
“Putin makes COVID look good,” said a friend — a sentiment no doubt shared by many. As some of us are beginning to take off our masks, go to museums, gather with friends in a world that feels smaller every day, millions of refugees cram onto trains and into cars. Across Europe, people are buying iodine pills and survival gear and thinking about bunkers.
If COVID-19 was frightening and frustrating because it was faceless and invisible, the evil this time has a face. And yet the swiftly spreading miasma of terror and violence the world is now experiencing also feels more like an atmospheric condition — as if a long-brewing storm is gathering strength — than a result of human actions.
But as the pandemic has given way to war, as these two apocalyptic horsemen gallop along, with the others — famine and death — not far behind, poetry is right there, keeping up with them.
The Ukrainian poet Yuri Izdryk has a poem, “Darkness Invisible,” about this uncanny ubiquity, this spread of darkness. In Boris Dralyuk’s translation:
“Evil has melted away in our world, as ice turns to water. diffused invisibly, like mist in air grope in the deepest, darkest of pits, your search will be futile you cannot say evil is here, evil is there …”
Yet the poem ends with a moment of intimate defiance. When evil finally surfaces, it will prove to be “pathetic, a thing of no worth and we two will laugh, we’ll laugh right in its face.”
Ilya Kaminsky, like Dralyuk a Jewish writer from Odesa, refers in a recent essay, “Poems in a Time of Crisis,” to this defiance — a spirit also seen in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Whatever the outcome, the extraordinary courage shown by this comedian turned statesman offers something to admire.
The spirit of heroic defiance manifests in literature on the front lines, too.
“Odessa stories have no endings,” Dralyuk wrote. This suggests exiles will return, that the city will survive, or that so long as we have stories, the idea of Odessa — a city named after the Greek hero Odysseus — will persist.
In “Poems in a Time of Crisis,” Kaminsky reports on exchanges with writer friends who stayed in Odessa. One writes: “I’m trying to do art. Read out loud. To distract myself. Try to read between the lines.” Another, “a lifelong journalist,” responds to Kaminsky’s offer of help: “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.”
“In the middle of a war,” Kaminsky concludes, “he is asking for poems.”
The poetic idea
As a poet and a scholar of classical literature, I know that enormous events like pandemics and wars remind us that human emotions are not rarefied; they’re shared. Understanding them, we can sometimes begin to understand one another.
Poets write to help them come to terms with the terror of their times. The process offers to repeat.
The resonant words at the end of Kamisky’s essay remind me of CP Cavafy’s 1920 poem “Dareios,” translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. It presents a Greek poet at work on his epic about the Persian King Dareios, attempting to analyze “the feelings Dareios must have had.”
The poet’s reverie is interrupted by the news that “war with the Romans has begun.”
“The poet is dumbfounded. What a disaster! How can our glorious king, Mithridatis, Dionysos and Evpator, bother about Greek poems now?”
Next, as happens when war approaches, fear creeps in: “The town isn’t very well fortified / and the Romans are the most awful enemies.” He prays: “Great gods, protectors of Asia, help us.”
But then “Dareios” ends on a note that transcends centuries.
“But through all his distress, all the turmoil, the poetic idea comes and goes insistently: arrogance and intoxication — that’s the most likely, of course: arrogance and intoxication are what Dareios must have felt.”
Rachel Hadas is a professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey. She wrote this for The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.