In a famous episode reported in the book If this is a man, Italian writer Primo Levi recalls himself speaking with another prisoner in the nazi lager where he was confined and recalling some lines from Dante’s Inferno.
“Considerate la vostra semenza:/ fatti non foste a viver come bruti /ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza Call to mind from whence we sprang: / Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes / but virtue to purse and knowledge high”
Suddenly, Levi writes, “they sounded like a trumpet blast, like the voice of God. For a moment, I forgot who I am and where I am”. The power of Poetry is here no doubt recognized as the ability of resonating verses to reconnect men and women with their own humanity.
I do not imply of course any direct comparison between the times we are facing now and Levi’s atrocious conditions of life in a concentration camp during a war. Nevertheless, the confinement imposed by the coronavirus pandemic that we are experiencing, for several weeks now, is surely impacting on our sense of liberty, joy and fulfillment of life.
It is an unprecedented experience putting all of us in direct confrontation with the challenges of an indefinite physical and psychological constraint.
As a poet myself, I find that reading poetry, a genre that finds in the digital era a new and surprising outburst of consensus, can be regarded as a simple and sensible way to cope, through beauty, with the anguish and purposelessness engendered by present restrictions.
It is not less interesting to point out, as a source of hope, that several poets in history have found profound inspiration in periods of isolation: the Russian writer Pushkin completed his novel Eugene Onegin while confined to a little Russian village by a cholera outbreak in 1830, the Italian author Torquato Tasso wrote notable poems while prisoner in the S. Anna Hospital in Ferrara, while Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet wrote in the 1940’s, during his imprisonment in Turkey, some of his best known poems, like “To life”.
Here at a glance, I suggest some advantages of reading poetry in these days of forced at-home seclusion, and I include some advice on authors to approach.
1. Through poetry we are led towards pointing the attention to one’s inner self. We are taught to give new importance to solitude and imagination. I’d suggest reading “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth, “O solitude” by John Keats, and the book of poems Soledades by Antonio Machado.
2. Poetry tells us that through words we can cultivate hope and that it will always be within us. I’d suggest reading “Hope” by Emily Dickinson, “Blue bird” by Charles Bukovski, and Mottos for an harmonious life by Indian poet R. Tagore.
3. Poetry can be uplifting. In a moment of discomfort, it can sustain the spirit and enforce the will of reaction and self-empowerment. I’d suggest reading American activist and poet Maya Angelou, “Life does not frighten me”, the collection Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, and “Freedom” by Paul Eluard.
4. Poetry shows reality through new lenses. It allows us to go deep into the most normal things and give them a different meaning. I’d suggest reading “Butterfly” by Josif Brodskji, “The righteous” by J. L. Borges, and “The goat” by Umberto Saba.
5. Poetry expresses emotions, also those of anguish or anger, giving words to state of mind in which everyone could identify and feel understood. I’d read “Christmas” by G. Ungaretti, “S’i’ fosse foco” by Cecco Angiolieri, and “To me he seems like a God” by Greek poet Saffo.
I’d go on, reporting that poetry can express the pleasures of meeting old friends or lovers (“Having a coke with you” by Frank O’Hara), can be fun (“The jabberwocky” by Lewis Carrol, the Calligrams by Apollinaire) and also that it can use metaphors and images that amaze our minds (“First light” by Giorgio Caproni, or “Moored boats” by Dino Campana); but I suppose I can stop here.
I’d like though to leave you with a thoughtful invitation, offered by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.
This period of our lives can be dull and hard to endure, but “nothing I lost”, and if we really want it, we have the power to transform it in an unexpected opportunity for nurturing our souls and, also thank to poetry, to open the way to new paths for a future, deeper fulfillment.
“I want, I will have – If not here, In a place I do not know yet. Nothing I lost. Everything I will be.” — F. PESSOA
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: We would like to say a huge thank you to Anna Maria for sharing this piece with our InSPIre the Mind readers. Anna Maria is an extremely talented poet and journalist and we are so grateful that she wanted to draw on her love of poetry to share with us all how we can use the art as a source of fulfilment during our current situation. Thank you again!
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