Poetry, Calamity, and Vicarious Life

Written by: Eric Falci


As the scope and intensity of the coronavirus pandemic became more terribly apparent, and as I like so many others hunkered down at home and tried to get my head around these new and frightening conditions, I first looked around for books and texts that spoke more directly to the situation. Like so many others, I dipped back into Boccaccio’s Decameron and Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and sought out Thomas Nashe’s “A Litany in Time of Plague.” This semester, I am teaching (now remotely) a class on modern British literature and so I had books like The Waste Land and Mrs Dalloway at my side that were marked by civilizational crisis and particularly the calamity of the Great War and the 1918 flu epidemic. I couldn’t stop re-reading certain passages from Beckett. More recently, though, I have found myself leaning towards poems that present some form of vicarious life, poems that – whether by design or desire or necessity – find themselves imagining or trying to imagine life or experience from someone else’s perspective. In one of her most famous poems, Sappho looks from some distance at her beloved through the scrim of the man sitting beside the beloved, and routes her own intense experience of desire through the position of the one who blocks that desire’s fulfillment. In “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison,” Coleridge projects an experience that he doesn’t get to have. His friends have left him to take a long walk “on springy heath,” down to a “roaring dell” and up again to view a “many-steepled tract” that gives on to “hilly fields and meadows, and the sea.” And he remains behind, imaginatively constructing their itinerary. Langston Hughes, in “The Weary Blues,” both describes a pianist playing the blues and honors that bluesman’s music by trying to remake it as poetry. Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving But Drowning” undertakes a quite radical self-dislocation in order to consider the consequences of misunderstanding another’s experience. What has drawn me to these poems this time around has been their attempt to reckon with and present an experience that they can’t or don’t have. Not as an act of appropriation (although that danger exists to be sure), but so as to find a way to recognize and empathize with a life that isn’t theirs. In this moment, themost useful thing that many of us can do is not to do things – not to go out and do the things we normally do, not to see the people we usually see, not to visit the places we typically visit. Crucial to these acts of necessary stasis is the continued – indeed, the heightened – work of seeing things from perspectives that aren’t ours. Of sheltering in place but stretching our imaginative reach so that we might apprehend and value, though not comprehend or take as our own, the life and experience and work of someone else.

Irish Literature in Transition: 1980–2020 By Eric Falci and Paige Reynolds
Irish Literature in Transition: 1980–2020 By Eric Falci and Paige Reynolds

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About the Author: Eric Falci

Eric Falci is Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Continuity and Change in Irish Poetry, 1966–2010 (Cambridge, 2012) and the Cambridge Introduction to British Poetry, 1945–2010 (Cambridge, 2015), as well as a number of essays on twentieth- and twenty-first-century Irish and British poetry....

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