‘Corona poetry’: unappreciated but still widely read
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the spring of 2020, poems suddenly popped up in many places in the Netherlands and Belgium: from poetry chain letters by e-mail to special ‘corona poems’ on social media, including contributions from city poets and national Poet Laureates. Expert in Dutch Language and Culture Jeroen Dera (Radboud University) wanted to know how poetry readers felt about corona poems and published an article on the topic in late March.
In May 2020, two months after the Netherlands and Belgium entered the first lockdown, Dera sent out a questionnaire via social media that was completed by more than 300 poetry readers. Nearly 90% of the respondents read poetry on a regular basis (more than once in three months) ‘before the coronavirus crisis.’ A striking finding was that the percentage of respondents who read poetry every day had increased by 40%, at least during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Figure 1. Frequency of reading poetry before and during the first months of the corona pandemic
Poetry in public space
Dera, who has for some time been interested in poetry popping up in the public space, mostly looked at how people responded to the ‘corona poems’ that appeared in the first months of the pandemic, from both amateurs and well-known poets. The Flemish Poet Laureate at the time, Carl Norac, was quick to initiate a ‘Poetry Wreath – Fleurs des Funérailles’ where relatives of deceased COVID-19 victims could request a personalised poem from a professional poet. The Dutch Poet Laureate Tsead Bruinja initiated coronagedicht.nl, which invited contributions from professional and amateur poets alike.
These initiatives, as well as the ‘corona poems’ appearing in newspapers and on Facebook groups, led to an overall increase in how much poetry people read. Dera could not tell from the results whether respondents were also reading more ‘regular’ poetry than usual.
Figure 2. Percentage of poetry readers that have encountered corona poetry per medium
Solace and connection?
Dera: ‘What I found really interesting is that traditional media like newspapers, radio and TV devoted a lot of attention to COVID-19 poetry. Poetry was found to fulfil a social function and was an obvious topic in the media. But I did wonder about some of the claims made in the media. Did COVID-19 poems really offer solace and bring people together? Was this really how it worked for poetry readers? That was what I wanted to find out.’
His conclusion: the attitude towards corona poems was primarily negative. The most important argument put forward for this was that many respondents did not wish to be confronted with the omnipresent pandemic when reading poetry. In other words, they were suffering from COVID-19 fatigue. The readers who did read corona poems felt they were not original enough, meaning in most cases that they did not sufficiently articulate a new or original angle on the pandemic.
Incidentally, one quarter of the respondents was very enthusiastic about the corona poems and felt that they did indeed offer solace and distraction.
Judge the content, not the form
Dera was not surprised to find that experienced poetry readers did not enjoy corona poems. ‘To be honest, I had kind of expected it: people who read poetry on a regular basis are usually not so keen on these kinds of current topic poems. They look for subtle layers and ambiguity. These poems don’t contain so much of this.’
He did find it striking that the arguments of both advocates and critics barely touched on language and form, focusing instead on content. ‘Poetry tends to be defined by unusual language use and condensed abstract forms. But in my survey respondents mostly reported disliking the content. Form aspects such as the use of stylistic figures or applied verse forms were mentioned much less frequently.’
Although regular poetry readers were not very positive about the corona poems, Dera is of the opinion that these poems did boost public perception of poetry as a genre. ‘There are indications that across the world, more poetry was sold during the COVID-19 pandemic. And people like city poets and Poet Laureates were given a lot of attention and space in the media. Also, let’s not forget that one quarter of respondents did get out of the corona poems what many poets had hoped they would: solace and a moment of rest. So it seems that poetry does have a social function to play in times of crisis. For a poetry advocate like me this is positive news.’