Have you ever had the experience
of hearing a new and unusual word for the first time and vowing to remember it?
I remember the first time I heard the word gobsmacked.
My former professor and long-time mentor and friend, Charles DeFanti, introduced
me to that word, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve used it since (i.e.,
I was gobsmacked when I read Eliot’s “Little Gidding” for the first time).
I recently came across the word hiraeth, a Welsh word with no exact
translation into English, which generally means “homesickness for a home to which you
cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the
grief for the lost places of your past.” Words typically used to try to explain
it are homesickness, yearning, and longing. However, there is greater depth
and suggested meaning to hiraeth than
in any of those words on their own.
Just the sound of the word
resonated for me and, then, when I looked it up, I
couldn’t help but relate it to pre- and
post-pandemic life—how much things have changed, and how much most of us long
to have our lives back—our yearning and homesickness for life as it was. With
so much uncertainty about when or if that will happen, I thought it might be
interesting to use the word hiraeth as
a kind of jumping off word for a poem about how life has changed since
Covid-19, how we feel about what’s happened, and whether or not we think things
will ever be the same as they were before Covid.
Can a poem begin with a single
word even if that word doesn’t appear in the poem?
It's may seem a little strange at first but, of course, it can!
There are many poems being
written right now about Covid-19 and its collision with personal and global
life. Many of the poems are insightful and profoundly meaningful. I recommend
reading several before you begin writing, and here’s a place where you’ll find
Things to Think about before Writing:
- What was your life like before Covid-19
(personal, national, or global)?
- How has the virus affected your family
life, friendships, work life, and social life?
- What do you miss most about life before
Covid? What are you “homesick” for?
- When was the last time you hugged
someone who isn’t a member of your immediate family?
- When was the last time you shook a
- When was the last time you attended a
religious service in a filled house of worship? Attended a wedding or a
funeral where there were no restrictions?
- How does it feel not to
be able to go to a restaurant with family members or friends and sit down
together (inside the restaurant) to enjoy a meal together?
- How does social distancing change the
dynamic of being part of any group?
- What’s it like for you to wear a mask
when grocery shopping, going to a doctor, or walking in a park?
- How long do you think
this will all go on?
- What things do you fear
may never change back to what they were before Covid? Do you think there
are some irrevocable changes?
1. Keep the word hiareth in mind (not the word itself but what the word suggests to you), then relate its meaning to
what you feel about the pandemic and its personal impact on your life.
2. You might want to start by making
a list of the ways in which the pandemic has changed your life.
3. Remember: you don’t have to use
the word hiareth in your poem—that’s
not required—but try to evoke the word’s feeling in images.
4. Write about family changes, work
changes, travel changes, social changes.
5. Write about fear—your personal fears and
how fear has impacted your life.
6. Write about friends or co-workers
who have contracted the virus.
7. Write about those who have not
8. This is a personal poem, so don’t
be afraid to show how the virus has directly affected your life.
9. Importantly, think in terms of
the nostalgia for things of your pre-Covid life—what do you long for, what real or metaphorical "homesickness" are you experiencing?
10. Whatever you write, don't be afraid to interject a note of hope.
1. Try to write in the active,
not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings
and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of
2. Be on the lookout for
prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).
3. The great author Mark Twain
once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly,
but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close
together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true
in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones
your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you
don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)
4. Avoid clichés (and, while
you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).
5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and
an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.
6. Challenge the ordinary,
connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the
words it contains. Think about surface and underlying meanings.
7. Create a new resonance for
your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”
8. If you take a risk, make it a
big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge.
9. Understand that overstatement
and the obvious are deadly when it comes to writing poetry. Don’t ramble on,
and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five
great lines should be five lines long.
10. Bring your poem to closure
with a memorable dismount. (Be careful not to undercut your poem’s “authority”
by ending with trivia or a “so what” line.)
Think about making your
poem unusual, edgy, different in some way. Try a prose poem, dip into the
surreal, be satirical, try a haibun or a haiku sequence, perhaps a limerick.
Whatever you write, and whatever form you choose,
go for Ezra Pound’s classic
dictum,” Make it new!”
By Alicia Jo Rabins
I’m OK during the day, but at night I get scared,
Which makes it hard to breathe, which is a symptom
Of the pandemic, which is what scares me.
Well played, anxiety, my old friend. You’ve always
Warned me something like this might happen.
You’re a gift from my ancestors who survived plagues,
And worse. They wove you into my DNA to warn me,
So that I too might survive. Now that it’s happening,
Anxiety, I don’t need you any more. I need
The ones who gave you to me. So hear me, ancestors
Who lived though danger times: I’m ready for you now.
All these years I’ve carried your worries in my bones.
Now I need your love, your thousand-year view.
Tell me it’s going to be OK, remind me you made it
Through and we will too. Teach me to breathe.
Reprinted by permission of the author.)
Coronavirus, One Month Later
By Nancy Lubarsky
Outside, streets are
except for delivery
and half-mast flags.
are fewer places where I
walk. As the parks
head is crowded with
ordinary folk who spent
lives making ends meet
keeping us safe. There
music now, less poetry,
pictures. I mourn for
I don’t know of, and the
I do—my colleague’s 90
old mother, our synagogue’s
past president, a
musician pal. As I learn
their lives, I try to
comfortable in my mind’s
multiple rooms. My hope
By Penny Harter
a heavy rain cleanses
the dense air
from hot pavement—
distant rumbles echo
in its wake
from a torn bag
knife, fork, plate
of childhood flicker at
the edge of sleep
try to reenter my
another landscape opens
even through the roof
stirring daily collagen
into my tea
(Copyright © 2020 by Penny Harter)
Sheltered in Place
By Adele Kenny
Working from home—
on the driveway.
I spray the mail with Lysol,
then wash my hands
Sheltered in place,
I lose track
of the date.
Below my window,
a man on the street
sings behind his mask.
Memories of childhood—
wishing for last year
or any year before.
Peonies begin to bloom—
I long for the way
(Copyright © 2020 by Adele Kenny)
Stay safe and be well, dear friends!