Finding Strength in Words: the Power of Poetry in Times of Trouble

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In times of uncertainty it can be hard to know where to look for solace or comfort. Encouraged to stay at home not only to protect the vulnerable, but as an easy way to assist those working tirelessly on the front line, many of us can feel helpless. We must look for community – and in the bookish world, albeit virtually, there will always be someone there.

While we’re looking to expand upon our community’s virtual interactions through IGTV, Skype Calls (and any other options you may conjure and suggest), for now, I wanted to offer a reshaping of inspirational women’s poetry, and how we can apply the past to the present as both an empowering and meditative force.

March’s theme nodded to the bravery of the women’s suffrage movement. We looked to unveil a more inclusive narrative through ‘Votes for All Women’. On researching for a fitting poem of the week, I discovered a world in which women crafted raw and beautiful poetry not only to boost their movement, but as calling for a greater sense of cohesion and community across the world. Reading such wonderful poetry, I found myself feeling a strange sense of familiarity.

Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s ‘We As Women’ draws upon the power of collective sistership, and the need for women to stand up in taking a stance. What has always amazed me about poetry is the power of its universality; the ability of language to transgress time and individual moments is astounding. Contexts dissolve to become irrelevant as words subconsciously reshape and repurpose themselves, evolving to become modern and relevant. The lines I found most striking belonged to the final stanza, they read:

‘The world needs strength and courage,
And wisdom to help and feed –
When, ‘we, as women’ bring these to man,
We shall lift the world indeed’

We may feel completely controlless, and I would not blame you for questioning how we can look to take a stand or make a difference, as these brave suffragettes did, when we are confined to our homes. But from this uneasy time, we can trace power in simple actions. Much like poetry, bravery manifests itself in many forms.

By taking that necessary decision to take a step back, we look to do what we can to protect our health workers. In using initiative and only buying that one bag of rice, we can ‘help and feed’ not just our own families, but the world around us. Now, more than ever, we are facing a crisis in which people all over ‘the world’ need to support one another. To offer a helping hand in whatever we can, a look towards building that ‘strength and courage’.

In Perkins Gilman’s ‘To Indifferent Women’ she ridicules those who remain stubborn and set in their previous ways. She writes:

‘Whose souls are wholly centred in the life
Of that small group you personally love –
Who told you that you need not know or care
About the sin and sorrow of the world?

‘Do you believe the sorrow of the world
Does not concern you in your little homes?
That you are licensed to avoid the care
And toil for human progress, human peace’

If I was reading this blindly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had written it just the other day. The challenges we face of course may differ, but the response required always seems to be rooted in ideals of friendship, care and activity. Currently, to be active is to restrict yourself from being socially active, and although that feels peculiar or unprecedented, by no means does it make it less prevalent or important. In reading these poems I couldn’t help but reflect on ideas of scale and size. Behaviours and mindsets which are ‘little’ and ‘small’ are selfish and ignorant in comparison to those which reflect upon the need for more worldly and compassionate action. While individual self-care will always be important, our efforts must always take into consideration others. Crisis or no crisis, these are lessons which women have been advocating for 100 years, and they are lessons which must stay with us.

The arts require our continuing support in troublesome times. Authors with upcoming releases face mass cancellations, and need orders and support now more than ever. Local indie bookshops are fighting against full closures through adapting to offer home delivery services to customers across the country. Take it from one who knows, this is a liberating and wholesome experience where readers are guided and offered handpicked recommendations by people who couldn’t want to do more for those around them.

Yet, on my Twitter and Instagram feeds, where wonderful people are offering endless numbers of enticing book recommendations, poetry seems to go unnoticed and unreported. Not only can you purchase many beautiful poetry collections from your favourite local bookshop, but you can actually discover that a lot of poetry is easily accessible and free to find online.

My self-isolation recommendation: take a wild journey onto a poetry website, go on a clicking adventure, reading and ravishing until you find yourself totally lost in poetry. Eventually, I believe, you’ll come across a poem that stays with you. No matter what time or genre – it seems befitting to some mood, emotion or thought. Maybe you’ll screenshot it, send it on to a friend, or even print it out. And then perhaps you’ll come out of the experience a little bit less lost than before.

Written by Issie Levin

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