NOEL KING, HOST:
COVID-19 has been good for very little, but it has been good for poetry, and data proves that. Visits to the website poets.org went up 30% during the pandemic. In honor of National Poetry Month, here's NPR's Jeevika Verma.
JEEVIKA VERMA, BYLINE: It wasn't just the pandemic. We had a former United States president contest a fair election, multiple killings by police and an unprecedented economic crisis.
JENNIFER BENKA: That's a lot. Any one of those things is a lot. And poetry is an art form that has always been a resource in times of crisis.
VERMA: That's Jennifer Benka, president of the Academy of American Poets, which runs the website poets.org. Benka says that visits to the site started soaring as early as March of last year. And one of the most-visited poems - "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: (Reading) Before you know kindness is the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows.
BENKA: Naomi's poem really helps us understand that you can think of sorrow as a two-sided coin, and on the other side of it is kindness.
VERMA: Suzanne Ohlmann is a nurse who often shares poems with her patients and fellow health care workers. She says she kept returning to Nye's poem during the pandemic.
SUZANNE OHLMANN: A lot of people, especially in health care, haven't known where to put their sorrow because there's been too much, and there's been no time to navigate it.
VERMA: Just like Ohlmann, Nye says that a lot of people have been turning to poetry this year.
NYE: So many people have reached out, wanting to discuss how much more poetry has meant to them this year or how, suddenly, poetry has meant something to them and how they needed it all of a sudden. And so asking council - tell me something to read, tell me where I should go, what should I subscribe to?
VERMA: Vermont-based poet James Crews says it's because something important has been missing.
JAMES CREWS: I know it can sound like a very loaded or cliche word, but most of the people that I talk to were just feeling a sense of hopelessness because nothing was really getting done with the pandemic. It didn't feel like we were being taken care of.
VERMA: Crews started putting together an anthology of poems even before the pandemic started called "How To Love The World: Poems Of Gratitude And Hope." It came out last month and is meant to celebrate the moments of joy that we tend to take for granted.
CREWS: It's very important to write about the difficult and the dark and, you know, the broken aspects of our world because we have to survive in it, and we have to find a way to process it. But I think we also need poems to remind us, you know, why the world is worth saving and also how we can take better care of ourselves.
VERMA: Crews read me part of a poem in his book written for the pandemic called "Shelter In Place" by Kim Stafford.
CREWS: (Reading) Long before the pandemic, the trees knew how to guard one place with roots and shade. Moss found how to hug a stone for life. Every stream works out how to move in place, staying home even as it flows generously outward, sending bounty far.
VERMA: Perhaps we need no further proof of poetry's popularity in the pandemic than the reaction to Amanda Gorman's performance at the presidential inauguration.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AMANDA GORMAN: (Reading) And there was always light, if only we're brave enough to see it, if only we're brave enough to be it.
VERMA: Everyone I talked to for this story told me that Gorman's performance was a touchstone in a year when so many people were craving comfort.
CREWS: I think people were just thrilled to find a poet who spoke their own language and spoke in such an accessible way for everyone.
VERMA: And even once the pandemic is over, poetry will be here, always making space for relief and escape.
Jeevika Verma, NPR News.
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