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To Be Alive — Is Power: Poetry For The Pandemic

Illustration showing letters going into a pencil
Pict Rider via iStock
Utah poet Katharine Coles discusses poetry that might resonate with what people are experiencing during the global coronavirus pandemic.

With all that’s going on right now, it may be more important than ever to remember to take a beat and appreciate something beautiful — even if that’s just a few lines of poetry. April is national poetry month, and to mark the occasion KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Utah poet Katharine Coles. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CB: Is there a poem you’ve been thinking about that captures the time we’ve been experiencing?

KC: My father died at 90 on Feb. 16. It had nothing to do with the coronavirus. After he passed, literally under and in the hands of his family — mine as well — an Emily Dickinson poem came to me really powerfully and would not let me go. And the interesting thing is the way that poem has stuck with me and been equally meaningful to me as we've moved now into the coronavirus time.

CB: Can you read it for us?

KC:

To be alive — is Power —

Existence — in itself —

Without a further function —

Omnipotence — Enough —

To be alive — and Will!

'Tis able as a God —

The Maker — of Ourselves — be what —

Such being Finitude!

CB: To be alive — is power. There's so much just in that first phrase. 

KC: It is brought most powerfully home in those really critical kinds of situations, and feeling the life of a loved one leave the body under your hands causes you to be more alert to what it is that animates your body, that animates your mind. 

I'm really interested in that first line because it's so emphatic, and it places all of the power in liveliness. But of course, this being Dickinson, she makes it very ambiguous as you go and to end on that word “finitude.” I think there was a time, after I had the poem by heart, when I kept insisting on replacing “finitude” with “infinitude.”

But of course, what she's saying is, if you're locating your power in being alive, that means that your power is not infinite. It's finite. 

CB: Dickinson wrote this poem circa 1863 in the middle of the Civil War, another time of crisis in America. You've said that even a poem written in another time can capture the present moment. What is it about poetry that gives it that timeless power? 

KC: It is that ambiguity. Mark Strand, who is now gone but who taught here at the University of Utah, wrote that poetry is the thing “that tells us in so many words exactly where we are.” And of course with poetry, it's that “in so many words” that's really important because it's not so many words with a little poem like this Dickinson poem. And “exactly where we are” is also both true and ironic because it does that over time and over space, no matter where we are. The poem can revisit you, come back to you and be changed within you as you encounter the different challenges that will come to you.

CB: How has the pandemic affected your writing?

KC: It's interesting because I just had a book come out this summer called “Wayward: A Collection of Poems,” and that is a book that I think of as being just full of pleasure. But of course, poetry being what it is, that pleasure is always limned with a shadow, because the poet knows that that pleasure has an end. 

And now I think that I'm writing poems that no matter how they start, they're laden with anxiety and the darkness of the moment. I just finished a poem about weathering a flash flood, and that poem also became a poem about this epidemic — not explicitly, but just as you said, Dickinson wrote that poem in the middle of the Civil War. Anyone who's interested will be able to go back and see, “Oh, Kate wrote ‘Deluge’ in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.” 

And so that deluge becomes metaphorical for whatever is happening in the moment and possibly metaphorical for any kind of pain and pleasure that someone else is going through in the future.

CB: Do you have a piece you'd like to take us out on?

KC: Yeah, I think that this is a poem that will be familiar to a lot of people just from high school and college. It's called “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it's dedicated to a young child. 

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

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