The Freedom in Confinement

One of our prime reasons for reading prose fiction is to get outside, to travel, and to learn about how people think and feel who are different from us. The familiar defense of the novel as an education in empathy and otherness follows from this, as does the attack on the novel as a diversion or an escape, a charge as old as the genre itself.

Poetry is different. We read it to stay at home and to reflect on who and where we are, even—or especially—when the poet speaks across a distance, historical or otherwise. Hence the way poems circulate in times of public and private crisis, and the surprise and gratitude we feel when we discover a poem that speaks for us, and all the more so when others have passed it along because it speaks for them.

Why should this be? It has to do with properties of lyric poetry in particular. One is the lyric’s concern with subjectivity, and what in our experience is difficult to articulate. Another is the lyric’s scale, its compactness, which makes it postable, portable, rereadable. Still another is the generic quality of the lyric speaker, who, even when she is most particular, is generalized, a sensibility the reader can inhabit, with room for other readers too.

But most important is the lyric poem’s peculiar present tense, which magically renews what happens in it whenever it is read. That makes the lyric adaptable to the changing present, in which new meanings and resonances emerge, under the pressure of history.

Take Henri Cole’s poems, which were not written in quarantine for readers sheltering in place, but that is how we come to them and how they speak to us today. The “Gross National Unhappiness” that is the subject of one of them, and the backdrop for all of them, is now not simply the malaise of a viciously polarized society, but the condition of a nation locked down under siege by the COVID-19 virus.

“Keep Me” takes us back in the poet’s memory to the 1980s and the ravages of AIDS, folding that moment and ours together, and pushing us to see the continuities and differences between them. Our fundamental connectedness as human beings is a source of fear and consolation, risk and resilience, as it has always been. The necktie that Cole saves from the trash, a humble symbol of the ties that bind us, has a story to tell of “calamity days long ago.”

“Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room,” begins one of Wordsworth’s sonnets on the sonnet. How appropriate, then, that Cole chooses the 14-line form here (adding a half line of space between lines for breathing room). The sonnet suits meditation in the course of an indoor life of domestic routines. Thus Cole, “peeling potatoes,” puts his “head down,” senses “a connection across / time to others putting their heads down,” does what he must and, even in this confined space, feels like a free man.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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