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  • Writer's pictureEd Guzzo

How to feel close to others in quarantine using poetry

Social distancing is difficult. Self-imposed quarantine is hard. Many of us don’t see our friends and family anymore and it’s taking its toll. Many of us are in this position right now. Some (including myself) have tried to make the most of their isolation and read more. Turns out, it’s hard to read under stress. A lot of us are reading less, not more, and those who are managing to read more may be using it as a means to fend of existential dread. Books can only provide so much comfort.

There is however one genre of book which can bring us closer together without putting hundreds of unread pages onto our to-do list — poetry books.

Most poetry is short — short enough to read in one brief sitting. It’s also easily shared, a quality I’ve recently discovered makes me and my friends feel a little less lonely.

I and a close friend have gotten into the habit of sharing poetry in short recordings just before bed. We select a poem we think the other might appreciate, either for its rhyme, its theme, or its witty imagery. Or we chose a poem that happens to be immediately available. It’s a brief exchange and takes less than ten minutes of my day just before bed. Yet somehow it feels like more, each minute filled with the warm sensation of shared humanity.

When I read to my friend, they feel closer, even if they’re not immediately available and will only hear the recording later. The recordings I send last no more than 5 minutes, but for those five minutes I’ve brought a beloved friend closer to me, and the sensation lingers long after. Receiving a recording feels like a much needed hug.

Funnily, the nature of the poetry we read is far from snuggly. I read from the painfully under appreciated Notes from the Journey Westward by Joe Wilkins and receive readings out of The Book of Hours by Ranier Maria Rilke. Death, existential dread, trauma, pain and suffering are the frequent themes of our readings. But in the Year of Our Lord, 2020 this may be the most appropriate. Voice is given to the otherwise unbearable, spun into lyrical verse.

Many phone messaging apps allow for voice and video recordings and even voicemail technology can be used to send a friend a quick poem. Live phone calls or Zoom meetings can also be used to bring poetry to one another. If you’re reading this, the means to give such a literary hug is likely available. I encourage you to try this with me — with us — find a friend and share with them a poem, a short story, a song if you’re musically inclined, and bring yourselves closer together. God knows we all need it.

My personal recommendations, beyond the above mentioned collections, include: Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman, Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Anthology of Chinese Literature edited by Cyril Birch, Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, the witch doesn’t burn in this one by Amanda Lovelace, and Psalms out of the Hebrew Bible as translated by Robert Alter.

In addition to collections, quality poems are available at the Poetry Foundation.

Be well. Be human.

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