A Word of Encouragement to the “Poets” of Nicholls and MOSAIC in This Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Dr. David Middleton

I put “Poets” in my title in quotation marks because I am using that word in the broader sense of the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who, in his famous essay “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), defined the “poet” as anyone who uses the imagination to create works of beauty, truth, and goodness. So a “poet,” in Shelley’s sense, could be not only a writer of verses but also a novelist, a short story writer, a playwright, an essayist, a musical composer, a painter, a sculptor, as philosopher, a law-giver, and so on.

That said – and as you know – we are not meeting in person this year to celebrate the unveiling of a new edition of MOSAIC because of the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Instead, we are following recommended guidelines for our own health and safety and for the health and safety of others, and we are seeing to the needs of others, including family and friends, in the proper manner, and as best we can.

In such days as these, the question may very well arise: What, if any, is the role of the “poet” in a time like this? A poem cannot stop the spread of a virus anymore than it can stop an advancing tank during a war.

The answer is that we need our ‘poets” now more than ever, just as we need our doctors, nurses, other health care professionals, pastors, priests, and workers in essential jobs and industries such as grocery stores, pharmacies, law enforcement, fire departments, the military, and elsewhere.

The role of the “poet” today is to create the works of art we need right now in all the different media, works that bring us together by means that may fall under such headings as consolation, empathy, understanding, mourning, resistance, heroism, questioning, remembrance, community, evocation, prayer, and praise – to name only a few.

When the Irish poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) died in January of 1939, just as war clouds were darkening over Europe and Hitler was moving toward the height of his power, the English poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) wrote his famous elegy “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” In the poem, Auden mourns the loss of a great poet whose presence, and new verse by whom, might have been a great consolation and a source of inspiration as war became inevitable.

Auden admits in his poem that “poetry makes nothing happen” but he adds that it is “A way of happening, a mouth.” A poem cannot stop a war (or a virus), but a poem can bring – give voice to – healing, comfort, sympathy, heroic defiance, and so on, as stated in italics in the paragraph above.

 

Auden’s poem ends:

Follow poet, follow right

To the bottom of the night,

With your unconstraining voice

Still persuade us to rejoice;

With a farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse,

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress:

 

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

Similarly, on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 – what we now remember and refer to as “9/11” – I was in my office in Peltier Hall preparing to teach my afternoon class in writing poetry. As news spread of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and horrifying pictures of the attacks were seen on TVs and computers all over campus, faculty and students were given the choice as to whether to hold or attend classes that day or not. There were good reasons for making a decision either way.

I chose to hold my poetry writing class but made attendance optional. Years later, I wrote a poem, “Infinitives,” inclusive of lines on 9/11. Eventually the poem was published The Sewanee Review, America’s oldest continuously publishing literary quarterly, founded in 1892.

The last stanza of the poem quotes lines from Shakespeare’s great play King Lear. Lear dies holding the dead body of his daughter Cordelia – an event that would be for most of us, if we were in Lear’s situation, “beyond words.”

But nothing for the poet must ever be said to be “beyond words” – or beyond the other media of the “poet” broadly defined. The lines from Auden that I refer to and read aloud to my poetry class are those quoted just above.

In my poem, the word “you” refers to an old Louisiana Tech English professor of mine (he loved and taught King Lear) who said that worrying about the grammatical error of the “split infinitive” was trivial now that the atom had been “split” and nuclear war threatened the very existence of all life on earth. Gloucester was a supporter of King Lear who was blinded by Lear’s enemies.

 

But then, on 9/11, when the planes

Flew into towers that fell into themselves,

Firebirds consumed with shearing wings aflame

And only ashes rising from their ash,

The word came down to let our classes go

If the stunned students felt they could not bear

To try to learn with terror in their heads—

Jumpers to streets a hundred floors below—

And yet I walked the halls past empty rooms

To hold my class in writing poetry.

 

And as I went along I thought of you

Who many years before had overheard

That exacting grammarian and judged

A solecism something trivial . . .

So when I reached the desktop podium,

Opening the worn handbook to a page

Turned down at our last meeting, I looked up,

Then told those who had come that they could leave

For family, priest, friend, counselor, smoke or drink

Though I would teach if even one remained.

 

I quoted Auden on the death of Yeats,

The poet’s role to pity, heal, and praise,

Mastering the craft and going by the book,

And though they all were shaken, lost for words,

No one rose to go as I stressed again

That rules of verse can set a poet free—

Caesura, line break, meter, rhyme, and stave—

Significance bound up in space and time

Like particled infinitives unsplit

In atom, grammar, host, the maker’s art.

 

And while I spoke I felt you standing there,

Your love for “unaccommodated man”

An “ancient love” like blinded Gloucester saw,

Still fixed in syntax and its hierarchies,

Those old subordinations, phrase and clause,

Philology, the chain of being, wed,

Though we would ask, “Is this the promised end?”

“Or image of that horror?” “Fall and cease!”

If words should fail and language come to harm

When dying kings hold daughters in their arms.

 

So practice your craft, fellow “poets” of Nicholls and MOSAIC, in this very trying time, and, as the great English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) said so well so many years ago, strive to bring to humankind in all you do and are, and in all the art you make, “relationship and love.”

 

David Middleton
Poet in Residence Emeritus
Nicholls State University
April 9, 2020

 

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