The Power of Poetry in a Pandemic and Time of Social InjusticeFebruary 25, 20212 min read
Amanda Gorman captured hearts and imaginations across the nation when she performed her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of President Joe Biden. While Jennifer Lopez’s stirring rendition of “This Land Is Our Land” and Garth Brooks’ “Amazing Grace” were performed to great acclaim, there was something special about the Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate’s recitation.
Villanova University professor of Creative Writing and Luckow Family Chair in English, Lisa Sewell, PhD., talks about the cultural impact of poetry in times of turmoil, like the political and social uncertainty brought on by an attack on the US Capitol combined with a global pandemic.
“Poetry is something people turn to in times of crisis -- and the pandemic and the ways it has made all of us face the grave inequities of our society has been an extended, seemingly endless crisis” said Dr. Sewell. “Amanda Gorman’s poem was powerful because she put a name to what so many people were feeling about the insurrection that occurred on January 6.”
According to Dr. Sewell, poets like Alice Quinn, the former poetry editor of The New Yorker, have already edited a collection of “pandemic” poetry, demonstrating how artists take inspiration from and create art in reaction to what’s going on in their lives—to connect to others who may be experiencing the same complicated emotions.
“In my poetry writing class, I talk to my students about how poets often try to say the impossible and write about experiences and ideas that are difficult to understand and difficult to put into words,” says Sewell. “What makes poetry powerful is the gesture, the effort to find the language that is adequate to the uncertainty and ambiguity of experience—and this seems true especially now.”
The task of putting experiences into words that connect with a wide audience is not an easy one, especially with so much content competing for attention in 2021. So what it is about poetry in particular that makes it appropriate for this moment?
Dr. Sewell suggests that the metaphorical language of poetry, as opposed to the certainty of prose or dialogue, hits home right now. She adds, “when the future is uncertain and the ‘before’ time seems hazier and hazier, poems are somehow both clear and direct with every word deliberately chosen, and also ambiguous and strange enough to speak to our sense of peril and uncertainty. Poems can both express our fears and also gesture towards the ways language is inadequate.”
To speak with Dr. Lisa Sewell, email email@example.com