While we herald vaccines as potential saviors from the threat of a devastating virus, Dr. Rosenthal said, “Poetry can serve as a vaccine for the soul.” In a world that is so marred by loss and deprived of pleasure, he believes poetry can help fill in the gaps, offering a brief retreat from a troubled world and hope for a better future.
For Margaret Shryer, a Minnesota great-grandmother, poetry has been like a good friend, a reliable source of inspiration and consolation that has helped her remain sane during the many Covid months mostly confined to her apartment in a senior residence.
“Poetry generally picks me up,” she told me. “There’s a nugget of truth in every poem, and I flip through them to find ones that resonate with me and will get me going. I read them aloud. Every time you go back to a poem, you read it with a different set of ears. To people who think they don’t like poetry or understand it, I say ‘What about lyrics? That song you love? That’s poetry.’ Some of the most moving poetry can be found in lyrics.”
I used to believe that poetry did not “speak” to me, but I now see how wrong I was. I lived for 44 years with a husband, a lyricist, whose beautifully crafted, heartfelt lyrics touched my every fiber and continue to uplift and inspire me a decade after his death. The special beauty of Dr. Rosenthal’s book for me is his discussion of what each poem is saying, what the poet was likely feeling and often how the poems helped him personally, as when he left his birth family in South Africa for a rewarding career in the United States.
Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb inspired and inspiring poem that stole the show at President Biden’s inauguration in January has shown millions of Americans the emotional and social power of poetry and, I hope, prompted them to use it themselves.
Dr. Rafael Campo, a poet and physician at Harvard Medical School, believes poetry can also help doctors become better providers, fostering empathy with their patients and bearing witness to our common humanity, which he considers essential to healing. As he put it in a TEDxCambridge talk in June 2019, “When we hear rhythmic language and recite poetry, our bodies translate crude sensory data into nuanced knowing — feeling becomes meaning.”
According to Dr. Robert S. Carroll, a psychiatrist affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center, poetry can give people a way to talk about subjects that are taboo, like death and dying, and provide healing, growth and transformation.
Referring to the pandemic, Dr. Rosenthal said, “This crisis affects more or less everyone, and poetry can help us process difficult feelings like loss, sadness, anger, lack of hope. Although not everyone has a gift for writing poetry, all of us can benefit from the thoughts so many poets have beautifully expressed.”
Indeed, the book’s first section features the poem One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, about loss that can comfort those who are suffering. She wrote:
Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
“When people are devastated by loss they should be allowed to feel and express their pain,” Dr. Rosenthal said in an interview. “They should be offered support and compassion, not urged to move on. You can’t force closure. If people want closure, they’ll do it in their own time.”
Closure was not a state cherished by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote that
“Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!”
However, Dr. Rosenthal pointed out that for most people, time does bring relief, despite what his friend Kay Redfield Jamison wrote in her memoir “An Unquiet Mind.” For her, relief “took its own, and not terribly sweet, time in doing so.”
Poems, I now realize, thanks to Dr. Rosenthal, can be a literary panacea for the pandemic. They let us know that we are not alone, that others before us have survived devastating loss and desolation and that we can be uplifted by the imagery and cadence of the written and spoken word.