Poetry in Pandemic
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
I’ve been reading a lot more poetry lately. In these difficult times I seek solace in that which is timeless, something that William Butler Yeats was getting at in his poem “To the Stone Cutters.” After reflecting on the ephemerality of life, Yeats goes on to say that our troubled souls can still find comfort in “The honey peace in old poems.”
Lines of poetry are getting stuck in my head these days, which is not a bad thing. For a couple of weeks now I’ve had this line from Charles Bukowski as a mental companion: “The days run away like wild horses over the hills.” It seems to me that this is what these COVID summer days have done—run away so rapidly. There has, however, been something paradoxical about this summer. With so many events and activities cancelled, the days have often felt like those of childhood summers in which time slows and the warm afternoons stretch out forever. At the same time, though, it feels like summer never happened. The music festivals, park concerts, Ski to Sea—all vanished from the calendar, their absence felt as a flattening of life, an unweaving of the texture of a normal summer. So as autumn nears I have a feeling that summer never really happened.
At least in this strange summer the outdoors were there. Susan and I have walked in almost every neighborhood in Bellingham. We’ve had small, socially distanced birthday parties in local parks, dinners on decks and in backyards.
While computer use is way up across the country, my experience has been quite different lately. I’ve hardly touched the computer in the past four months, preferring to be outside as much as possible, walking, working in the vegetable garden, watching the birds at the feeders, reading on the deck. I’ve thought often of a line from the poet Andrew Marvell, “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” In the context of Marvell’s poem, the winged chariot symbolizes death, but lately I’ve been thinking of the chariot as the rapidly approaching end of summer. Cold days and rain will bring a retreat to the indoors and an end to outdoor socializing. Movie theaters and concert halls will still be closed. Life will shrink in the winter cold.
It shouldn’t be happening like this. Had there been a competent president in the White House over the past four years we might be emerging from this pandemic by now. With a different kind of leader we could have had a coordinated national response. What a different America it might now be had there been a leader who respected science, one who listened to and followed the advice of epidemiologists and public health experts, one who set an example of responsible behavior, one who strove to bring out the best in us.
But enough of these wistful thoughts. There is still a bit more summer to savor and then the beauty of autumn as well before COVID winter arrives. As I write these words at a table on our deck, looking down the hill to Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands, another poet comes to mind, William Shakespeare, the greatest of them all. In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, the character Celia, looking out at the Forest of Arden, says, “I like this place / And willingly could waste my time in it.”
Well then, what better place to ride out a deadly global pandemic and the catastrophic consequences of the Trumpian apocalypse than Bellingham? Life during COVID curtailment is much more bearable when one is surrounded by dazzling natural beauty rather than the steel and concrete sterility of a large city. How preferable it is to walk about in Bellingham’s interesting and sometimes quirky neighborhoods than to be stuck in a vast suburb stretching out for miles of unimaginative, look-alike houses and the same franchise businesses as everywhere else in this increasingly homogenized nation. And even though the town has grown considerably in recent years, it still has managed to maintain much of its friendly, small-town, laid-back feeling.
We’ll emerge someday from these distressing times. Hopefully Nov. 3 will be the pivotal point. But right now I think I’ll put aside my pen and just watch the hummingbirds buzz around the flowers and the hawk circle above the bay. Bellingham is a good place to be, and for the moment I’ll willingly waste my time in it.