The path of sympathy: Literature, poetry and creativity in lockdown

Written by: Natasha Ryan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

This year has seen a record number of entries to the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award for 11 to 17-year-olds, the deadline for which is July 31. Natasha Ryan considers why

On March 28, five days after the UK entered lockdown, The Guardian reported that sales of Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague) had seen an astonishing surge.

Penguin Classics had gone from shipping quantities of the novel in the low hundreds each month to the mid-thousands: in February 2019 just 226 copies were sold in the UK, whereas in March 2020, 1,504 copies were sold in a single week alone (Willsher, 2020).

The novel features a memorable conversation between two of its main characters, Dr Rieux, the doctor who raises the alarm over the plague, and Tarrou, a visitor to the town and volunteer in the fight against the epidemic.

When Rieux asks Tarrou what he sees as the path towards peace, Tarrou replies “la sympathie”.

Tarrou’s response suggests something fundamental about the way we, as humans, respond to a public health crisis – our actions may be “guided by the science”, but our hearts are led by compassion. This is where literature comes in.

Our reading habits seem to have shifted over the last couple of months, with books dealing with plagues coming to the forefront of the public consciousness – in addition to Camus, we have heard more about Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Boccaccio’s The Decameron, while classicists have reminded us that The Iliad begins with a plague (Beard, 2020).

But attention has also been drawn to the way lockdown could be affecting writing habits and creative productivity more broadly. Chaucer, we are told, wrote passages of The Canterbury Tales in the midst of the bubonic plague outbreaks of the 1340s and 1350s (Over, 2020).

Meanwhile, an especially ubiquitous meme doing the rounds on social media has pointed out that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in lockdown. This is, of course, set against a sobering backdrop in which The Globe itself has called for urgent funding to meet the crisis in the performing arts sector.

So has literary productivity flourished during this time? Early signs point to yes. At the Poetry Society, we run the largest competition for young poets in the world, the Foyle Young Poets Award. The competition is always popular but this year has so far seen an overwhelming response. At the time of writing, entries are up 109 per cent on last year, and in the past three months we have received poems from 2,594 young writers.

A quick look at the figures tells us that the public health crisis has already had a notable effect on the topics young people are writing about: among the poems submitted so far, there were 54 references to “corona”, 48 to “Covid”, 84 to “virus”, and 33 to “NHS”. More troublingly, there were 48 references to “lockdown”, 35 to “isolation”, and 107 to “loneliness”.

Perhaps young writers are taking advantage of a change in routine that allows them more time to write. However, it would be wrong to reduce this to a simple question of productivity or time. Online, people have rightly pointed out that arts practitioners should not pressure themselves – or others – to have a highly productive lockdown.

Individuals’ circumstances, their mental health, the financial strain – there are numerous factors that render such expectations unmanageable and unfair. We cannot all write the next King Lear.

But here, again, poetry comes into its own as a means of addressing these very concerns. At the Poetry Society we have set up a dedicated “Learning from Home” page, where we have brought together lots of resources and features for young people stuck at home during lockdown.

A number of these speak to the role of poetry as a tool for wellbeing during this time: Antosh Wojcik has produced a workshop on poetry and mental health for key stage 3 pupils; James Carter has designed a resource for year 6 pupils to use poetry as a memory device as they transition to secondary school; Michelle Madsen has produced a workshop for key stage 3 on “imagined worlds”, allowing poetry to take us out of our living rooms and on an adventure; former children’s laureate and illustrator Chris Riddell has produced a tutorial on illustrating poetry.

What these resources have in common is their understanding that poetry can be co-opted into doing some of the emotional heavy lifting we are all necessarily engaged in at this time. For young people in particular, who may be looking for structures onto which to map complicated emotional reactions which are, let’s face it, new to all of us, poetry can provide an outlet.

As one of our Foyle Young Poets, Annie Davison, puts it: “Pausing and thinking about the small things (...) is important and inevitable during these weeks in isolation.”

As such, poetry is an art form that is well placed to respond to moments of enforced stillness, introspection, the reckoning with big questions. For many young writers who are finding themselves facing some very big questions – when will I see my friends again? – will I go to university? – can I hug grandma? – writing poems has proved a fruitful way of working through a crisis.

During this time, we have found that poetry has something for us all: it may not be a question of writing the next great masterpiece, but it can offer a means to grapple with disruption, aid our mental health, and help us to remain connected with one another even while we are apart.

This may explain why poetry is popping up in all sorts of places, from Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast to Patrick Stewart’s “A Sonnet a Day”.

When it comes to lockdown literature, the pressure to be prolific and productive misses the point: what matters is that literature has so much to offer in terms of working through our feelings, expressing our fears and hopes, and bonding with one another.

Cia Mangat, another of our Foyle Young Poets, recommends starting a book club in lockdown, precisely because poetry can unite us and instil a sense of community (Young Poets Network, 2020). Above all, it is a way of celebrating “la sympathie”.

  • Natasha Ryan is education officer with the Poetry Society.

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