I write in self-imposed isolation. The Corona virus that originated in Wuhan, China, and is spreading with the speed of a medieval plague, has mandated “social distancing,” a phrase now commonplace. In Wall Street lingo, we have suffered a fearful “black swan event” that no economic model could have forecast. The shock to our systems of living and of thought has not yet been fully absorbed, but already the stock market has tumbled, main streets look like ghost streets, schools are closed, colleges have sent their students home, the NBA has shut down, “March madness” was canceled, and spring training, too. Even politicians have taken notice. Emergency measures are taking effect. The effort to create an effective vaccine is under way. We can hope that an antidote is in a chemist’s test tube even now. Medical scientists are doing their best to “flatten the infection curve” – to limit the spread of this ultra-contagious virus that has already killed many thousands of people and caused whole nations to close down.
Confined to quarters, I have the luxury of thinking about this plague in relation to those in our literature and history – the ten plagues god visited upon the Egyptians in Exodus; the plague Oedipus brought on Thebes when he committed the twin sins of parricide and incest; the bubonic plague that decimated Europe in the fourteenth century. It is possible to regard the current situation allegorically as a punishment we have brought upon ourselves or possibly as a prophecy of geopolitical warfare or a radical solution to the problem Malthus posed. Whatever else it is, the disaster is also a failure of the imagination inasmuch as we were as unprepared for it as we were at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The reassuring thing is that we did win the war that we entered on that day.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” gained a new currency. The most famous line of that poem – “We must love one another or die” – was brutalized in an opinion piece in today’s New York Times (March 19, 2019), which substituted “help” (and “assist”) for “love.” The more important point is that Auden’s poetry endures. Poetry matters. American poets will be living through a crisis worse than any in my lifetime, and how they respond to it will prove a fascinating test and challenge.