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Poetry Provides Comfort — Through The Pandemic And Beyond

Naomi Shihab Nye is the Poetry Foundation's Young People's Poet Laureate.
Peter Wynn Thompson
Naomi Shihab Nye is the Poetry Foundation's Young People's Poet Laureate.

Poetry can be a source of distraction, of beauty, of truth. It can guide us when it gets difficult to manage the intensity of what we're feeling. So it's no surprise that people sought out poetry for comfort this past year.

Overall visits from readers to the website poets.org went up thirty percent during the pandemic. And on the Poetry Foundation's website, Maya Angelou's famous poem "Still I Rise" alone received roughly thirty percent more visits in 2020 than in 2019.

"So many people have reached out wanting to discuss how much more poetry has meant to them this year. Or how suddenly poetry has meant something to them," says award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye, a teacher and a "Young People's Poet Laureate" at the Poetry Foundation. All year, she says people have been asking her for counsel on what poems to read or what poetry platforms to subscribe to.

It wasn't just the pandemic. This year we saw a former United States president contest a fair election. We had multiple killings by police and ensuing civil unrest. And an unprecedented economic crisis led thousands of Americans to lose their jobs.

"That's a lot. Any one of those things is a lot," says Jennifer Benka, President of the Academy of American Poets. "And poetry is an art form that has always been a resource in times of crisis."

The Academy of American Poets is a cultural organization that runs the website poets.org. Benka says visits to the site started soaring as early as March of last year.

In fact, the most-visited poem on the site written by a living poet was "Kindness" by Nye. Here's an excerpt:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Suzanne Olhmann is a nurse who kept returning to "Kindness" during the pandemic."A lot of people, especially, in healthcare haven't known where to put their sorrow because there's been too much and there's been no time to navigate it," she says.

Olhmann, who says she talks about poetry with her patients almost every day, shares "Kindness" with them, as well as with other healthcare workers.

"Naomi's poem really helps us understand that you can think of sorrow as a two-sided coin and on the other side of it is kindness," she says.

Vermont-based poet James Crews says that one reason poetry has provided solace this year is because it's a powerful medium for working through change.

"A lot of poems are read during funerals, weddings, graduations, and huge transitions in our lives," he says. "And I feel that we're all turning to poetry as a way of capturing and naming this huge transition that we're all going through together right now."

So be it the pandemic, the economy, or nationwide protests, it's been a particularly difficult year. And as we move through these changes, many of us have been missing joy in our lives,

Crews started putting together an anthology of poems even before the pandemic started, called How To Love The World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope. It came out last month and is meant to celebrate the moments of gratitude we tend to take for granted.

"It's very important to write about the difficult, the dark, and the broken aspects of our world because we have to survive it and then we have to find a way to process it," he says. "But we also need poems to remind us why the world is worth saving and also how we can take better care of ourselves."

One uplifting poem in Crews' book was written by Amanda Gorman, the young poet who took the presidential inauguration stage this year.

Here's an excerpt of what she read to America on January 20:

... the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn't broken ...

And perhaps we need no further proof of poetry's current popularity than the reaction to Gorman's performance at the presidential inauguration. After her reading, visits to poets.org soared as people sought out her poems to read and share online. Benka says traffic to her site saw the highest single-day increase it had seen in years.

"She was able to hold us like in the cradle of those words and kind of raise us up." Nye says. "She was speaking at a time of enormous national trauma that we had all been experiencing."

That is how poetry gives us hope each and every day. And even once it is no longer National Poetry Month, and the pandemic is over, poems will be here for us, holding space for relief and escape.

This story was edited for radio by Rose Friedman and adapted for the Web by Jeevika Verma and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeevika Verma
Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.