How poetry came to save us in lockdown

From Twitter haikus to celebrity readings on Instagram, the pandemic has seen people reaching for poetry in new and innovative ways. Lauren Bravo explores the artform we always turn to when the stakes are at their highest.

Lauren Bravo
Mica Murphy/Penguin

A funny thing happened a week into lockdown. I wrote a poem.

This is not characteristic behaviour. The only time I’ve attempted poetry since I was a teenager has been for friends’ weddings and family funerals. But suddenly, it felt like an appropriate response to the chaos unfolding beyond my windows and screens. Lines kept popping into my head as I struggled to focus on my actual work, until eventually I sat down and bashed the whole thing out one Saturday afternoon.

My poem was called When All This Is Over. The title was hardly original, and nor was the sentiment. But in a way, that made it nicer; to know that across the world, across the internet, other people were responding in similar ways to the same unspoken brief.

From daily readings on the Today programme to minimalist lines on Instagram, poetry has become one of the emerging cultural trends of the pandemic. It’s being retweeted at pace, shared by distant friends on Facebook and slipped into our pockets via WhatsApp groups. Classic poems, funny poems, serious poems. Limericks and sonnets, silly ditties and heartbreaking ballads. Where before we might have been squeamish, seeing poetry as the preserve of the pretentious or sentimental, a little of that cynicism seems to have been put on hold.

'Canonical works from previous centuries suddenly ring with new resonance'

'I think people are often self-conscious about reading poetry, because we teach kids in school that poetry is some kind of secret mad language they have to decipher, where everything "means" something else,' says writer Ella Risbridger, whose 2019 anthology Set Me On Fire: A Poem For Every Feeling, offers a perfect entry point for the poetically-curious. 'Maybe in a crisis people are less inclined to worry about that kind of self-consciousness. The need for human connection – which is what poetry is, really – overrides the fear.'

Back in February, when the first unsettling news stories were emerging from China, Ella began sharing her favourite poems regularly on Instagram. 'I have found it very soothing to have this rhythm... and I have found the challenge of trying to find the right poem every few days to be incredibly satisfying,' she says. 'It's forced me to consider the texture of each day, rather than seeing them all as the same.'

At its simplest, poetry can be an act of observation. Writes of Spring, the National Trust’s crowdsourced nature diary, took on a special poignancy this year when it was compiled during the first week of national lockdown. The hundreds of submissions included rhyming couplets, meandering free verse and matter-of-fact notes on birds spotted and new flowers in bud – but all were united by a bittersweet optimism. While the human world ground to a halt, in nature it was business as usual. 

Meanwhile, canonical works from previous centuries suddenly ring with new resonance. Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke has rallied famous friends to record live Instagram readings from William Sieghart’s soothing collection The Poetry Pharmacy, which includes such treats as everyone’s favourite Hot Priest, Andrew Scott, reassuring us that ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright’ and Stephen Fry reading 'Everyone Sang' by Siegfried Sassoon.

April saw Plymouth University launch The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Big Read, in which the Coleridge epic is divided into 40 sections, each reimagined by an artist paired with a poet or performer – including star turns from Marianne Faithfull, Tilda Swinton and Iggy Pop. Although the project has been three years in the making, the poem’s central themes of isolation and powerlessness in nature make it feel eerily prescient. 'Alone, alone, all, all alone,' goes the famous refrain.

Then there are the individual projects flourishing across our social feeds – like this one for last month’s National Haiku Day, in which Bristol costumier Nicola Holter gathered more than 70 lyrical snapshots from friends and family of their lockdown lives. Jessica Salfia's poem constructed from the opening lines of emails received during quarantine has been retweeted more than 47,000 times, perhaps proving that in 'these uncertain times', there’s nothing we’re craving more than a common thread. As spoken-word artist George The Poet puts it in his own most recent poem: 'We have debates, exaggerate, exacerbate and aggravate but, make no mistake, we're best when we collaborate.'


Perhaps one of the most powerful examples is Poetry Generation, an online video archive of poems read by isolated older people, launched in March by author and lecturer Ellie Levenson. "I felt that asking older people to stay at home during the crisis stops them being part of our everyday lives, so I also wanted to create something that would keep them visible in a positive way," she says. More than 50 videos have now been uploaded to the site, with submissions from poets Bernard O’Donoghue and Jane Ulysses Grell in the mix as well as appearances from Jon Snow and Sir Tony Robinson – but ultimately the project isn’t about performance; rather fostering a connection across the space that divides us.

"I was very touched by one of the submissions from a woman living in a care home," says Levenson. "She read it on a video call with a friend, while her friend recorded the screen. I loved that she wanted to do it enough to find a way."

Poetry has long been associated most readily with times of crisis, transition or heightened emotion. There’s a reason we read poems at weddings and funerals, even if we’d never think to curl up on the sofa with a book of sonnets. I’ve laughed about my Gran’s penchant for a long, syrupy verse in a greetings card – but at a time when so many of us feel truly lost for words, it’s easier to understand the appeal. Poetry does the talking for you.

"We need the voice of poetry in times of change and world-grief," said former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, on launching WRITE Where We Are NOW, a growing collection of work by poets from around the world in response to the virus pandemic. "A poem only seeks to add to the world and now seems the time to give."

'Just as she was coming into her own, in all sorts of ways, the fairytale was cut short'

And rather than a cryptic challenge, a little ambiguity can be a blessing. "Poetry is all up to personal interpretation, so neither the writer or reader have to explain themselves. At a time when everyone’s brains are full of unhelpful noise, that helps," says the writer Poetry Hel. Having started publishing her funny, candid, pop culture-rich poetry via Instagram 18 months ago, lockdown has given her a push to write more. "Isolation has created so many conversations in my head. I have financial concerns, I’m spending a lot of time alone, I’m sliding into many regrettable DMs. Not to mention the politics, grief, humanity, changes in relationships, anxiety, boredom. There’s a lot of ground to explore without having to mention the c-word."

Hel is soon to launch her first print collection: a zine titled I Want to Have a Bath with Davina McCall and Other Love Letters. But like many modern poets, her natural home is online. "I definitely still don’t feel like I 'belong' in the poetry world,'" she says. "'I’m dyslexic, I can’t recite Keats. I write poems about masturbation and white wine and get my inspiration from contemporary female musicians and stuff my mates say at the pub. The internet has given me a platform to do that, and access to an audience who gets it."

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