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Learning lines in Lockdown

My bookmarks bar fulfills the English-student stereotype, because slotted between Canvas and ‘UCC Library Home’ is a slowly-filling folder marked ‘Poetry.’ Mid-way through lockdown (the first), The Cut published an article by Matthew Schneider—’Now is the Perfect Time to Memorise a Poem’—detailing his self-conscious party-trick and grounding-technique of rote learning poems, alongside the prologue of The Canterbury Tales. He writes of the sticky stanzas of middle-school-learned Shakespeare and lines of Merrill he quotes while a ventilator buys his hospitalised father time, between calls where all doctors speak of is time:

“How fast or slow he breathes — COVID comes for your breath — and how quick or sluggish his blood pressure, the beat of his heart. There is almost nothing I can do but call his carers, wait, and hope. In that morass of powerlessness, I’ve found myself reciting the snippets of poems I’ve picked up along the way. If nothing else, their meter overtakes the racing of mine… Here in our realms of hazard, we — I — need these talismans.”

And almost subconsciously, the bookmarked folder appeared alongside compulsory readings. Paul Durcan’s ‘Windfall, 8 Parnell Hill, Cork’ – a hangover from Leaving Cert English – often plays broken loops in my mind down the Mardyke. It sat there alone until joined by Ginsberg’s ‘America.’ There is then a lot of Boland, and Bishop, and Whitman, but T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ the most technologically dog-eared.

As every email of the last 8 months begins, we live in unprecedented/uncertain/uncomfortable/unplanned-for times. The rhymes and rhythms of a lost normality are what help ease the day into sometimes reluctant beginnings, the click of a kettle or hum of heating turning on, but it can’t hurt to have a hidden guard for when the mask slips (no pun intended).

See, I can prescribe you Bishop for the disappointments, the short fuses and frustrations; “Lose something every day. Accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. / The art of losing isn’t hard to master. / Then practice losing farther, losing faster: / places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel. None of these will bring disaster.” O’Hara for the lockdown burn-out; “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love” and loneliness; “I’ve got to tell you / how I love you always / I think of it on grey / mornings with death / in my mouth the tea / is never hot enough.”

These lines won’t bring any grand revolution to Levels 5 (or 4, or 3), but they can help articulate a time we maybe don’t have many words for yet. Give into the pretension of poetry, find a space in your bookmarks bar for the little rhymes and rhythms to piece together some of the harder days – whether its vague lines from hurried Romeo and Juliet of Junior Cert, or the inscription of a birthday card.