Bruno Cooke explores how the poetry of the 1918 Spanish flu compares with the poetry of the present Covid-19 pandemic
Flu forgotten; flu remembered
The Spanish flu of 1918-20 owes its moniker to an act of propaganda. The UK government sought to maintain morale during World War I by downplaying the extent to which the epidemic was ravaging Brits, painting it instead as an Iberian phenomenon. Our present pandemic, by contrast, was quick to hit the headlines and, despite the efforts of a minority to misname it, is not associated with any country in particular. By the time 200 or so deaths had been recorded, we were wallowing in a Global Health Emergency. SARS-CoV-2 was quick to become something – to become real. Global communications networks rendered it starkly in graphs and bar charts.
We all bore witness. New words and phrases entered our common lexicon: ‘excess mortality’, ‘case rate’, ‘asymptomatic’. A hundred years ago, medical alert systems did not, as a rule, account for influenza. Nevertheless, similar things happened. ‘Social distancing’ became a thing. Whatever ‘mass gatherings’ were, they were banned. Whole islands were quarantined: Iceland, Australia. Then, as now, and apparently par for the course in times of crisis, agitators proliferated. A group of Americans formed the five thousand strong Anti-Mask League of San Francisco and successfully petitioned for the city to repeal the mask ordinance. In a peculiar twist of fate one of those declaring masks ineffective, from his seat on the State Board of Health, was Dr W H Kellogg, whose flaked cereal company enjoyed a bumper year in 2020 as a result of work-from-home policies and school closures.
It is unlikely that any of us will forget the Covid-19 pandemic. Our children, too, may know of it. But how long will its hold on cultural memory last? The Spanish flu, curiously, features little in the literary or filmic canon. This, despite killing more than ten times more Americans than the war and infecting as many as a third of the world’s population. Why? As an illness, writes Mariella Scerri, it ‘erases the collective suffering’; as a virus, it ‘offers a degenerate body’. Like those traumatised by war, survivors lived in death, ‘only half alive’, forever on the threshold. Hardly fertile soil for the writing of ballads.
In a peculiar twist of fate one of those declaring masks ineffective, from his seat on the State Board of Health, was Dr W H Kellogg, whose flaked cereal company enjoyed a bumper year in 2020 as a result of work-from-home policies and school closures
It is perhaps for this reason that Catherine Belling wrote, in 2014, ‘to write [the memories of influenza] is to write nonsense or dreams’: the combined turmoil of war and illness left little room for self-expression through art or literature, Scerri argues. But there is a difference, qualitatively, between the two. One who dies in battle, even if indirectly, dies in service, for a cause deemed Great. Wars have victors, and are told in stories of triumph and defeat, via art and in moments of national mourning, pride and elation. Those who died of flu simply died. While wars enflame the collective spirit, the suffering of illness is a solitary pursuit. To win is only to survive. In the words of Elizabeth Outka, ‘there’s no sacrificial structure to build around a loss of this kind. It’s simply tragedy.’ It is for this reason, Outka suggests, that viral diseases do not provoke outbursts of poetry.
Another reason, almost too obvious to mention, is that the flu simply killed them – poets, artists, composers, storytellers. The Warsaw-born poet Ary Justman collaborated with his wife, sculptor Chana Orloff on one book, Réflexions Poétiques, before dying in 1919. Their son was a year and eight days old. Felix Arndt (composer), Harold Lockwood (actor), Myrtle Gonzalez (actor), Randolph Bourne (writer), Ivan Cankar (writer), John H Collins (writer and film director), Stephen Sydney Reynolds (writer), Margit Kaffka (writer and poet) and Guillaume Apollinaire, the French surrealist poet, all died of the flu. The latter survived most of the war, a head wound from a shell burst and the ‘ruination of his lungs by gas’ only to be struck down by the disease, two days before the Armistice.
Yeats, Eliot, Williams, Woolf
Nevertheless there are those who tackled it, in whose stories it played a role. Of the ‘big names’, Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ is perhaps most often associated with the disease. T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and William Carlos Williams’ ‘Spring and All’ also dealt with the pandemic, in their way. Yeats’ third line, ‘Things fall apart’, cuts straight to the fragility of all things, and sums up the general sentiment. It could easily be applied to the present. But any reference to the pandemic itself sits thinly between the lines, obscured by his trademark symbolism. While previous drafts contained specific references to the French Revolution and World War I, its final iteration demonstrates Yeats’ commitment to universalising its message.
In the weeks before he wrote it, Yeats’ pregnant wife Georgie Hyde-Lees fell ill with the virus, and nearly died. Yet the poem’s recurring relevance lies in its ‘productive vagueness’, says David Dwan: Chinua Achebe and Joan Didion were able to apply its lines to postcolonial conversations in Nigeria and counterculture conversations in San Francisco in part because those lines refrained from lamenting, for example, the stuffiness of face masks or the closure of cinemas. Such is the stuff of poetry: metaphor and inference; open-endedness. Outka highlights Yeats’ use of passive voice in shaping the vague, amorphous threat, both of the pandemic at large and the possibility of foetal death:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
Virginia Woolf, too, caught the flu, but wrote of it only elusively, while Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, penned in 1922, has been described as ‘a homage to the state of the living death’. But it is oblique in its handling of both war and disease.
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Elsewhere in the poem, crowds ‘flow’ over London Bridge, ‘undone’ by death, exhaling ‘short and frequent’ sighs. Something unreal challenges humanness. Death is present but somehow secret, mass graves remembered as corpses planted – a metaphor in which Scerri discovers an effort to bury the body psychologically, to forget the flu and all its associations. In other words, the pandemic lurks somewhere offscreen, out of sight but never out of mind. The threat it poses is obfuscated by the damage it has done. It looms over the world, too large to fit on the page, too much for the boundaries of a poem.
In Williams’ ‘Spring and All’, by contrast, humans are absent. But the connection to nature, to the brown earth, holds fast. It is ‘dried weeds’, ‘dead, brown leaves’ and ‘leafless vines’ that, sluggish and naked, ‘enter the new world’. The contagious hospital, outside which the poem situates the reader, spills its death onto the road. It cannot contain death. Death is a fact of life, too sudden and big to fathom. And those who ‘begin to awaken’ after death do so ‘uncertain of all’. Even rebirth is tainted.
The present pandemic
The dust has not yet settled on Covid-19, nor will it for some time. Art, meanwhile, takes time to marinate. What is worth comparing to Eliot, Yeats or Williams? How can we know? In three generations, people will remember what they remember, irrespective of editorial decisions made today. Most of today’s poems will sit in books, or on the internet, unread for long periods of time. Great masses have already been lost. But this is about the telling of an event that is still ongoing. The question is about how it is being told, not which telling will endure.
The dust has not yet settled on Covid-19, nor will it for some time. Art, meanwhile, takes time to marinate
For a series commissioned by the National Poetry Library, titled In the Beginning of Covid-19, Donika Kelly wrote ‘After work, I ride the train home’. In the 14-line poem, form and language coalesce, forming ‘sentences of disaster’. Two images, of a train and a river, dance from line to line, each underrun by the current of passing time. The abstract becomes small, measurable: ‘No matter but material. / No time but seconds passed, the present / downstream’. The vagueness of its setting recalls the contagious hospital of ‘Spring and All’: the train is every train, the river every river. Just as for Yeats, a ‘vast image’ arises ‘somewhere in the sands of the desert’, Kelly and Williams plant us in familiar non-places. Only Eliot specifies a place, and then more than once.
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violent air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
But for Eliot there are many places. There are Richmond and Kew, Moorgate and Margate Sands, the Strand and Queen Victoria Street. His ‘poem of horror’ takes place everywhere in London, and elsewhere in the world. It is a personal comment on the universe, as E M Forster wrote – a universe which, for Eliot, spread out of London at least as far as Europe, Egypt and Israel.
A book of poems edited by Alice Quinn, Together in a Sudden Strangeness, features a range of responses to the pandemic. Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ entry, ‘Flowers for Tanisha’, tells the story of Tanisha Brunson-Malone, a forensic technician whose small act of defiance, placing daffodils on body bags in the hospital morgue, resonated with many as a particularly human response to the amorphous threat of the pandemic. It is a springtime poem, written in March, and captures the disjunction between seasonal blossoming and bags of bodies – more than reminiscent of Eliot’s own ‘April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land’,
Each flower clinging to the flower of the body
New York, I can’t bear your suffering while flowers burst.
Then, echoing Kelly’s train-bound suffering, Griffiths urges her reader, urges New York: “do not cry alone in your trains”.
Joshua Bennett, writing for the same collection, views death through the lens of life in ‘Dad Poem’. Disallowed from accompanying his pregnant partner for an ultrasound, he rushes his goodbye. He watches his baby’s mother ‘vanishing / down the corridor’ towards ‘glowing white / machines’ – his unborn child, the future of life, antithesis of death, taken away to be screened in his absence, because he the father could be a carrier. The scene develops the ‘ceremony of innocence’ that punctuates Yeats’ poem. In both, father poets contend with the possibility of loss; both are powerless to attenuate it. Finally, in the last lines of Bennett’s poem, he laments the changed nature of things, the fact that time cannot be rewritten, and asks,
What can I be to you now,
smallest one, across the expanse
of category & world catastrophe,
what love persists
in a time without touch
Similarly, the time of Kelly’s ‘After work’ is unchangeable. The present is already downstream, out of reach. But the state of fear, which at first manifests in ‘sentences of disaster’, ‘a hand closed / or opened’, dissipates. The horror loses form, diverging from the world of Yeats, in which a ‘vast image’ (of the eponymous second coming) is given ‘shape’. Does a source of fear derive power from having form? Or is Yeats’ sphinx a hallucination filling a void? Kelly concedes, in her poem, ‘I was wrong about the form’. It melts like snow. Nothing is certain in a pandemic.
Meanwhile Williams’ preoccupation with the natural world, which persists even under the guise of death in ‘Spring and All’, becomes a source of frustration for Ada Limón, whose poem ‘The End of Poetry’ begins:
Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower
and snowshoes, maple and seeds, samara and shoot
enough of bosom and bud, skin and god
not forgetting and star bodies and frozen birds,
enough of the will to go on and not go on or how
a certain light does a certain thing
All the wonder in the world is not enough, it seems, to sate the most human need: ‘I am asking you to touch me’; ‘I am human’, ‘I am alone’ and ‘I am desperate’. Repetition drives the rhythm of the poem, underlines the fact. In a time without touch, for both Bennett and Limón, everything fades. Nothing is sufficient. It is the end of poetry. Kelly’s admission, ‘I was wrong about the form’, looks different when paired with Limón. Form exists to be touched, and in a world of digital mediation, of two metres apart, of plastic screens and ‘can you see me, can you hear me’, nothing can replace touch.
All the wonder in the world is not enough, it seems, to sate the most human need: ‘I am asking you to touch me’; ‘I am human’, ‘I am alone’ and ‘I am desperate’
The modernism of the early 20th century, it has been argued, was often marked by a refusal of traditional modes of consolation; mourning remained unresolved. We have had modernism now, and postmodernism. Futurism, structuralism and poststructuralism too. Geopolitically, 2020 was riven with simmering disquiet, and Covid-19 made many of us feel very isolated. The great narratives that once promised hope have cracked, one by one, over time: religion, progress, even the solidity of fiat currencies. Many of our imagined realities have faded, leaving us un-domed, looking out into a blank space. It is this strange world that the virus struck, this world in which poets must pen their verses. And it is with strange familiarity that they have done so. Touch, form, the fact of a response: the same notes are there, only played differently, dressed in modern clothing. As a species, we may never be ready for mass death. Until we are, poets will go on as they have, distilling and reflecting the human experience, in ways that are oddly familiar. Of all the senses, touch may be the most human.
Just for fun
While ‘high culture’ poetic imaginings of the Spanish flu pandemic may be oblique and / or circuitous, there are some amusing examples of poems printed in newspapers, which take a more direct look at the flu, and possibly do more to reflect attitudes, as it were, on the ground. Such poetry, for ‘the people’ as opposed to readers of poems, meets the flu head-on, and could almost have been written in 2020.
The moon that long October night,
Rose cheerless over city light,
The street crowd surged—but where to go?
The bar? the concert? movies? No!
Old Influenza’s locked the door
To Pleasure Land. Oh, what a bore!
by Edna Groff Diehl, published in the Harrisburg Telegraph, 5 October, 1918
This old world is in the lurch;
For we cannot go to church;
And the children cannot roam;
For they now are kept at home;
And they’ve put a good, strong ban
On the moving picture man;
Also made the lodges close;
While we’re in the awful throes
Of the pest the doctors call the Spanish Flu.
by Jesse Daniel Boone, published in the Carolina Mountaineer, 17 October, 1918
About this thing “Flu”—
Beg pardon, ker choo—
I think it is nothing but grippe—
At-choo, oh, at-chee—
You must excuse me;
Now here is my tip—
It is not the Flu—
Oh, goodness, ker choo—
But just a big scare
Like they have everywhere,
A regular big bug-a-boo.
At-choo, at-chee, chee—
Just listen to me,
I’m getting a cold in my head.
To resume about “Flu,”
Oh, goodness, ker-choo—
So much I have read
About the disease—
‘Scuse me while I sneeze—
At-choo, at-chee, chee,
Ker choo, oh, dod rot it
At-chee, choo, at-chee,
By golly, I’ve got it.
Anonymous, published in the Vancouver Daily World, 2 November, 1918
The poems discussed in this essay can be found here:
Further reading and references:
‘Things Fall Apart‘: the apocalyptic appeal of WB Yeats’s The Second Coming in The Guardian
The Morgue Worker, the Body Bags and the Daffodils in The New York Times