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I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a pandemic on. You probably don’t want to write about it, and you don’t have to. Sit this one out altogether if you need to; but bear with me, there is potential for joy even here. I give you the theme of cataclysm. Tomorrow and in the following days we turn to gentler things. Today, you might find a way to approach the present epidemic – but you might instead tap into a historic disaster to explore turmoil at a safe distance. You could even presage a future catastrophe, to make a parable of climate change or growing dictatorship.
First, choose your cataclysm. The obvious contender is this pandemic, but (oh joy!) there is no shortage of others to choose from, both natural and human-made. Stay away from actual war on this occasion, if you will. There is a ready supply of pestilence, flood, revolution, tsunami, explosions, extinctions, wildfires and massacres. These are vast subjects, and you might want to lessen their daunting scale by focusing on one incident. So, not the whole biblical flood, but the moment Noah looks at the rising waters and says ‘right lads, cast off’; not the whole hurricane, but the moment of total calm as the eye passes over.
Consider setting your poem before or after your chosen disaster. How did it begin? What was happening one ordinary day in Pompeii, when Vesuvius began to smoke – or in Stoke-on-Trent a year ago, before Covid? Looking at the aftermath of a catastrophe can show both its impact and the potential for recovery. The sea levels rise, and Edinburgh becomes an aquarium; the sun rises on London after the Great Fire to reveal odd survivals, new vistas across the city.
You may wish to get your bleak on; and who can blame you? Show how the present plague has laid waste our high streets. Give Hurricane Katrina a wicked voice of her own. But wherever there are humans, there is humanity. The flooded farmer rows across her fields to a neighbour’s window; Californians hastily dig a ditch to save one house from wildfire. Find one diamond in the ash. Here, of all places, you will want to avoid the big words like hope or fear. In most poems they come across as a lazy shorthand. As someone once said, your job as a writer is not to tell me that it’s raining, but to make me feel the rain on my skin.
We did not choose to be witnesses to this historic calamity; but since we’re here, we can look for joy even in this, as Rupi Kaur does. We can try to praise the mutilated world.