“In the aftermath of the spectacular collapse of the twin towers on September 11, 2001, the act of turning to poetry enjoyed a revival… In times of crisis, poems, not paintings or ballet, are what people habitually reach for… The formalized language of poetry can ritualize experience and provide emotional focus… Poetry also can assure us that we are not alone; others, some of them long dead, have felt what we are feeling.”
The excerpt above was written by Billy Collins, US Poet Laureate (2001-2003) from the introduction to The Poem I Turn To: Actors and Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them. Sadly, poetry books tend to stand forlorn on dusty bookshelves, often relegated to the back of whatever bookstores are still in business. In general, most people don’t read or buy poetry; paradoxically people have an insatiable appetite for songs — that are essentially poems set to music — as evidenced by the steady sale of digital music (mp3s) and music streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora. Nevertheless, Collins is correct in stating that during special events in our lives — whether tragic or joyful — we inevitably turn to poetry. One of the greatest students of the human psyche, Sigmund Freund, expressed it this way: “Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.”
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will be a period that will have an indelible imprint on our collective consciousness. It is unlike anything the world has ever experienced — a devastating, crippling worldwide pandemic that triggered a financial meltdown and an economic depression that will rival the Great Depression of the 1930s. In a matter of weeks we lost so much: the loss of 42,016 lives (as of this writing); more than 850,000 are sick; our way of life has been disrupted; businesses will falter or fail; and our trust and faith in government leaders has eroded. However, paradoxically, we have gained something: the pandemic has shattered our complacency of living selfish, isolated lives to discover an eternal truth that has been obscured by the fog of narcissism and the headlong pursuit of money: that all humans are connected to one another. Moreover, we are interdependent — alas, our survival today, and in the coming years, depends on this realization and the obligation to care for one another, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, or political affiliation. During a dark and difficult time like this, I cannot think of a poem that is more relevant and inspirational than John Donne’s short, but eloquent, poem known as “No Man is an Island.” Donne, a cleric of the Church of England, wrote many devotionals and sermons. This poem appear in Meditation 17, that appears in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions published in 1624, during a very difficult time in his life when he was mourning the death of his wife, some of their children, and several friends. In this timeless poem, Donne reflects on mortality and an individual’s relation to humanity:
No Man is an Island
No man is an island entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as any manor of thy friend’s,
Or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
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Read related posts: The Power of Literature
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The Poem I Turn To
Great Literature Speaks
William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
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How to Grieve for a Departed Friend
Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father
For further reading: The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne
The Poem I Turn To: Actors & Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them edited by Jason Shinder