Arts Muse

'Art In Exceptional Times': Pandemic Poetry

Emily Mellows reviews the Viral Verses anthology, "pandemic poems" collated by York's Professor Linstead.

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Image Credit: Lucy Tartan

Viral Verses is a beautifully crafted anthology of poems and illustrations prompted by the fear, isolation and grief wrought by the pandemic. The anthology, edited by Nicholas and Stephen Linstead, features 87 contributors - the majority of whom are students or faculty members at the University of York.

Stephen Linstead’s own incredibly well written poem ‘Curtains (For Edward Tudor Crum)’ perfectly prefaces the nostalgia and the hope which imbues the collection. Professor Linstead was prompted to create and edit the anthology by the passing of an old friend during the pandemic, as he told Nouse: “Last September I met an old friend from University, Ted Crum, who I hadn’t seen for 30 years. Ted was a musician and I was performing in Coventry near his home, and he came along to see us. We agreed to meet up in May, when we would have more time to catch up, but unfortunately, he died from Covid-19 in April. I wrote a poem in his memory and shared it with my son, Nick, who shared it with his friends, and one offered to illustrate it. Nick suggested we could get a few of our friends together and produce a small book of illustrated poems to raise money for the NHS Charities Appeal, dedicated to Ted and everyone who has sacrificed their life trying to care for people like him.”

Upon reading the collection, the reader will find themselves acutely aware of the overwhelming fear and loss that prompted many of its contributors to write their verses. Many of the poems and accompanying illustrations effectively encapsulate the frantic loneliness that many who experienced quarantine will immediately recognise. Isabelle Lepore, one of the anthology’s student writers, contributed to the anthology as a means of processing the terrible loss of her grandfather during lockdown. She told Nouse that “writing is one of my great emotional outlets, and the most tangible way of reaching back to when (my family and I) lost him.” Her delicately composed poem ‘Ci Manchi Nonno’, like many of the 120 poems in the collection, captures the frustration and pain of one forced to grieve alone.

In addition to the contributor’s words, around half of the poems are accompanied by matching illustrations and images from 30 artists of varying ages and styles. One could spend hours simply flipping through the pages of the anthology, examining the beautifully varied collection of images that have been selected to accompany the poems. Each poem is matched with illustrations which suit the style and tone of the poems, ranging from jovial caricatures and cartoons for lighter or more nostalgic poems, to water colour paintings and detailed hand drawn images for those with a more serious tone.

Viral Verses was inspired by loss, but it is also a celebration of life, art and the way in which people have fought to connect in spite of the pandemic. The anthology truly achieves Stephen Linstead’s goal to “create a book that would contain something for everybody, that would capture the diversity of the situation.” The anthology’s final poem NHS by Paul Thwaites acknowledges the sacrifices made by nurses and how the British public united in the face of a crisis; “Nations hear songs before unheard/ One Nations Choir, united in one word.”

Meanwhile, Ian McMillan’s opening poem ‘Two Old Men in Caps in Barnsley, April 2020’ displays how small Northern communities in Britain are tied together through mutual struggle. McMillan’s poem details how two coal miners find themselves connected to one another, despite the social distancing measures community members are expected to maintain; “They walk on, socially distant, but part of each other.” Similarly, the poem ‘This Generation’ by Sophie Ryall thought-provokingly describes how young people throughout the world became united in aid of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This anthology is perfect for fans of art or poetry, or anyone who wishes to contribute towards an incredible cause. 100 per cent of the profits from the anthology go towards NHS charities together and The Covid-19 appeal. It’s inspiring that even in the darkest of times, artists and writers alike have found a way to create, influence and raise money for a worthwhile cause.

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