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Cet article se penche sur la manière dont les poètes écossais ont traité et parfois éprouvé de façon très personnelle les effets inévitables de la pandémie de Covid-19: la maladie en soi, le cycle de déni-désarroi-désespoir, une perception nouvelle de la contingence de la vie humaine, de brefs instants de légèreté et d’espoir, et ce que Michel Foucault qualifiait d’« exil en soi-même », vécus et revécus à chaque nouveau confinement. Il s’agit ici d’examiner le rôle joué par la technologie numérique et les réseaux sociaux dans l’établissement par les poètes de communautés connectées de lecteurs, spectateurs, « amis » et « followers », et de modes alternatifs de sociabilité par le biais d’une autre forme de contagion (émotionnelle, esthétique ou autre) en dehors ou à la marge des circuits commerciaux.

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See the silver linings till we meet again, she said,
Yes, I said, but she couldn’t hear a single thing I said,
Except when I shouted I love you. I love you, precious,
she said. Then the line went dead.
Jackie Kay, “Still”, April 2020

The poet is buried in the House of the Virus
George Gunn, “Lockdown”, April 2020

1On 11 March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Covid-19 a pandemic, followed on 23 March 2020 by the British Government who announced the “Stay at Home” order enforcing strict quarantine measures. Nine months later, on 4 January 2021, Mainland Scotland was again placed into lockdown with a view to tackling the spread of the new coronavirus strain. Since we were urged to “protect [ourselves] and others” Covid-19 has been dramatically affecting our lives, our relationships with other people in our families and communities, as well as our professional activities. We have followed guidance on physical distancing, social isolation and spatial partitioning; we have lost face-to-face contact with our friends, families, colleagues and students; with varying degrees of success we have learned to cope with the strain that the pandemic has put on our relationships with each other and the wider world. In the words of Albert Camus, we have “fallen into line, adapted [ourselves], as people say, to the situation, because there was no way of doing otherwise” (Camus 181).

2The months, even years, that have gone by have been exceptional in terms of community life (or lack of it) and public and mental health. They have reminded us in the hardest of ways that social life is made of physical contacts and transmissions of all kinds, of how vulnerable we all are, and of the porous frontier that exists between physical and psychological confinement. During this time of unrest, loss and suspension, we have been forced to question our perception of the here and now, our means of engaging with the world and, on a different level perhaps, our increased reliance on digital technology as social prosthetics.

  • 1 “The plague as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder had as its medical and political cor (...)

3The present contribution considers how some of Scotland’s most popular poets have addressed and sometimes personally dealt with the inevitable consequences of the pandemic: beyond the disease itself, the cycle of denial-confusion-dismay, a renewed perception of the contingency of existence, fleeting moments of lightheartedness, and that which Michel Foucault termed “the practice of exile-enclosure” (Foucault 198)1 caused here by each successive lockdown. It examines the way poets experience and reflect on the rituals of separation and correlative discipline implemented by this modern version of “the great Confinement”, and how they rely on digital technology and the social media to foster online communities of readers, viewers, “friends” and “followers” and thus relate to the world by spreading contagion of another kind, be it emotional, aesthetic or otherwise, outside the conventional mechanisms of the commercial nexus.

4A world-wide phenomenon, what is now referred to as pandemic or corona poetry has unlocked a great outpouring of creativity in Scotland. Since March 2020 hundreds of poems have been published – most of them online – as a means of processing and accounting for their authors’ experience of separation, bereavement or recovery. In the words of Kathleen Jamie, “Perhaps it is only through poetry, dealing as it does in language compressed, transformed and transfigured, that sense will ever be made of the Covid-19 pandemic” (Jamie in Guardian 2021). Although it is still uncertain whether it will ever make sense, the pandemic has presented a whole set of new circumstances for the production and reception of textual and visual material designed to offer creative outlets as well as avenues for expression in the midst of Covid quarantine. As the successive lockdowns were taking their toll, writers and poets documented both personal and collective struggles via a great variety of forms such as online diaries, blogs, videos, podcasts, social media posts and poems that often acted as cathartic coping tools, or as means of adjusting to separation, of maintaining their relationship with their readers and relatives virtually in a now mostly digitally-driven environment.

  • 2 “How can we deliver socially engaged arts projects when we cannot meet each other face to face? Wha (...)

5Following the WHO’s pandemic declaration, several blogs were created to provide their networked audiences with “uplifting reads”, to help them find purpose and adjust. The Scottish Poetry Library has been particularly active via their weekly installment blogs Poetry in quarantine featuring “all kinds of free online poetry goodness”, From the frontlines and Poetry on lockdown. The latter is introduced as “a blog series in which writers and Library staff reflect upon poems chosen from [their] website. They’ll write about how the poem is providing comfort and inspiration during the lockdown.” Let us also mention Hugh MacMillan’s Pestilence Poems blog (“poetry till lockdown ends”), The Guardian’s “Poems to get us through”, or the National Theatre Scotland’s Scenes for Survival, a series of “digital artworks created by a quarantine creative team, connecting remotely, made up of a performer(s), writer and director and filmed by the performers, from their personal spaces of isolation.” Collaborative blogs were set up, among these The Scribbler’s Union, “a weekly online workshop and writer’s group facilitated by Kevin P. Gilday”. The blog champions “supportive group interaction […] to share art and create some community in the midst of crisis.” Meanwhile, artists and academics have been meeting online to discuss creation in uncertain times and the impact of digital technologies on art – as for instance “Being Social”, an online event organised by Deveron Projects on 3 June 2020, which discussed “the future of socially engaged arts in socially distanced situations.” 2

6What is striking in all of these online initiatives to spread poetry around is the emphasis they lay on the collective, on “us”, “the community” and “the group”. The point is not merely to showcase the work of poets and artists who are creating in response to the crisis, but also, and perhaps most importantly, to create a sense of community through – perhaps ironically – the sharing of personal experiences of social disconnectedness. Corona poetry is not just poetry written in dark times or poetry about the pandemic. It is an exercise in co-existence and hospitality, with poets welcoming others (readers and fellow-poets alike) into their own experience of self-isolation – and as for video-poetry and photo-poetry, into their homes, too. The pandemic has also encouraged poets to turn to forms and media that they were not accustomed to: at a time when we all rely on digital technology to stay in touch, many are the poets who turned to online publications and social media to boost reader engagement and genuine exchange across networks and communities. Just as it carries an unmistakeable “we’re in this together” message, corona poetry also promotes a kind of dialogical encounter centred round the notion of collective endurance – an endurance that is first demonstrated by the poets themselves who publish, record or post on a daily or weekly basis.

7From April to July 2020, the University of Salford published a poem a week by their Chancellor and writer in residence Jackie Kay. The 16 “Sunday Poems” were video-recorded by Kay from her home and on her daily walks, then posted on YouTube. Most begin with Kay greeting her audience as she would friends, with the words “Hello again everybody, how are you all doing?” Although some of these poems were published pre-pandemic, others were written in response to the Covid crisis and its impact on her relationship with her mother (“Still”), her son (“New Era”), her friends and fellow Scots. The eleventh installment titled “The World is a Village” reflects on the advantages and limitations of online communication, which all at once collapses and raises the borders that keep “us” apart:

  • 3 (...)

It’s the whole world in our hands, my mum says,
half her face on an iPad in her Care Home.
Not just Scotland. It goes wherever it roams.
You’re just there; you’ve never been more far away.
It’s China, Korea, Syria, Spain, every way
You turn – Nigeria, Australia, the USA. We’re not alone.
Families living grief, the bright light shone
On us human beings. We’ll look back one day
And the light will be grey and unforgiving.
It’s one thing to say we’re all in the same boat;
But what if we’re not in the same boat.
We carry on doing what we’re doing for each other,
Our hearts open like doors: distance-giving, fonder.
For our brothers and sisters, our sisters and brothers.

  • 4 See also “I begin an argument with myself” and “I read the guidance on Auto-lalia”, Jamieson 28 and (...)

8That an iPad should make its way into a poem about love and grief will come as no surprise. Since Covid hit, digital technology has turned into a lifeline to most of us. Connecting through the Internet and cultivating digital relationships through social media have become routine practices, and we have learned to use our digital devices to stay in touch and to maintain a semblance of mental health in an otherwise harrowing context. Like the rest of us, many poets have become better at using communication technologies and acknowledge their impact in their lives and on their relationships with their loved ones. In her poem titled “New Era” dated 4 April 2020, Kay reflects upon her now digital relationship with her son Matt and the better-than-nothing feeling that many get when relating online: “Now we FaceTime or houseparty // with a can of Guinness, a glass of wine, / doing our best, cheerzing the screen. / […] A wave, another wave; holding your nerve – / who’ll press the red phone icon first? / Love is keeping our distance. / Love is a long-distance dance.” Often prosaic and metapoetic, corona poetry will then interrogate the stresses and strains of computer-mediated communication, as well as the possibility or impossibility of really connecting online. The same concern runs through Robert Alan Jamieson’s poem titled “I video-conference with my Selves” dated 16 May 2020, in which he addresses the issue of identity dissolution in this most schizogenic,4 “live-ish” period, when the first person one faces in Zoom meetings is always oneself, or one’s “avatar”, “some troll-self”, “a cipher-self emoji-self”:

No wonder I sometimes forget
who I am
n the breadth between speech
and silence.
In the flicker of pixels. (Jamieson 88)

  • 5 “It’s always a great test of text to put breath into it, so to speak, and yesterday’s readings were (...)

9“I video-conference with my selves” is part of Jamieson’s iterative and periodical “Testimony of the untested”, a series of daily poems that were written directly into Facebook status updates between 17 April and 17 May 2020, at a time when the poet was in recovery from a long Covid-like illness. Each poem was written as “a daily mental exercise” and “an attempt to regain sharpness corollary to the physical exercise [he] began to take from [the] first poem on.” In-between original poems, Jamieson also live-streamed what he called his “breathing exercises”, that is, the reading or “venting” of his Shetlandic translations of short pieces by German, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Breton or Danish poets.5 Jamieson’s memoir in the form of iterative poetry thus provided the readers with an opportunity to relate to the pandemic from an insider’s point of view – I use the term “insider” as a syllepsis – while turning lockdown into an artistic practice. In Jamieson’s poems, Covid-19 is a personal, but also social and professional, experience: the writing of one poem a day is seen as a manageable challenge in times of mental and physical exhaustion, at the same time as it complies with the social imperative to remain productive come what may – an imperative that most scholars will also be familiar with.

10A mental as well as physical necessity, and written to the moment, these poems were, Jamieson claims, meant to be ephemeral: “They become like plague clothes, these poems, / to be destroyed, burned somehow. / Cast out of mind and sight” (Jamieson 90). But the 44 poetic epistles did not exactly make it to the metaphorical pyre and scrolling-down-into-oblivion that they were supposedly destined for. Some appeared in the online magazine Bella Caledonia, others were instantly translated into the languages of Jamieson’s followers, others still were reposted then published in journals and magazines across the world, much to the poet’s amazement. The poems were eventually collected then published in bookform and became the first publication by the then newly established Taproot Press, also “a project born in lockdown” started by Jamieson’s son Patrick and his partner Daniela Silva. In the same vein, the publication was crowdfunded, mostly by Jamieson’s (Facebook) friends – with or without quotation marks – around the world. Those among the subscribers who reside in the Edinburgh area were handed their copy of Plague Clothes and were able to meet the poet and publishers in the flesh in August 2020 during a short gathering in West Port Garden.

  • 6 Jost, François, “L’Evolution d’un genre : le roman épistolaire dans les lettres occidentales”, Essa (...)

11Jamieson’s quarantine poems were meant as a tool for recovery, but in the course of just four months, they turned to real-life engagement, after the relationship between the poet (sender) and his readers (receivers) became more and more active, or, following François Jost’s typology of epistolary narrative, “kinetic” (Altman 8).6 The impetus or kinesis provided by the readers-followers is acknowledged in the prologue to Plagues Clothes:

Though the process of recovery was slow, in the spirit of instant response which marked the writing, this collection is rapidly produced through the most immediate channel, and dedicated to all my friends near and far, whose responses to the poems as I posted them became a vital communication with the world during Lockdown. It was a part of what I like to think of as, not livestreams, but a ‘love-stream’ between us all, those sharing their thoughts and ideas, their art and craft, and those responding. (Jamieson, prologue)

  • 7 « […] now that we are all refugees / squatting around the campfires of our own complacency » (Gunn)

12To post entries – poems, for that matter – on social media is an invitation for reader engagement, and it is not uncommon that a sense of community develops through the sharing of pandemic poetry or pandemic diaries. Jamieson used the social media as a writing journal to keep with reflections on the affective albeit limited spaces he inhabited whilst in isolation, as he was obviously experiencing cabin fever. Photos of his home, of his cat, of his shelves and of himself, mask on, mask off, accompany some of his poems while he “interrogate[s] the front door” (31) – “I can’t see farther from the door” (73) – that turns him into a prisoner – in “Lockdown” George Gunn compares himself with a “refugee”7 – in his own domestic cell, longing for the world outside, trapped in an environment made solely of smooth and semi-reflective surfaces: “Screens. Dusty glass. Streaky windows. Cracked / Mirror. Dull lamp. Varnished Picture. // Ceramic Glaze. Gloss Covers. Tin Foil. / Laminate. Porcelain. // Wood and paint. / Plaster. / And plastic, always plastic” (32). Together with screens, window panes recur in corona poetry to metaphorise the tangible and intangible barriers that the pandemic has raised between us, also between us and the world: “[…] I press my nose against the flat cold pane / and cough. Inside here, breath is haar – rain, a tear” (32). The poet-inmate finds himself trapped in a modern equivalent of the Panopticon, subjected to – almost – the same mechanisms of isolation and transparency that Foucault described in Discipline and Punish.

13In Liz Lochhead’s long poem “The Spaces Between” posted online by the Scottish Poetry Library in April 2020, it is also through a window that members of a family try to at least “mime” or “pantomime” togetherness, their handprints on glass a new kind of parietal art, the glass pane a modern form of hard rock, the house both a shelter and a trap:

Inside her living-room
his grandmother puts her open palm to the window.
Out in the garden, her grandson
reaches up, mirrors her, stretching fingers
and they smile and smile as if they touched
warm flesh not cold glass.

More than forty thousand years ago
men or women splayed their fingers thus
and put their hands to bare rock, they
chewed ochre, red-ochre, gritted charcoal and blew,
blew with projectile effort that really took it out of them,
their living breath. Raw gouts of pigment
spattered the living stencil
that was each’s own living hand
and made their mark.
The space of absence
was the clean, stark picture of their presence
and it pleased them.
We do not know why they did it
and maybe they did not either but
they knew they must.
It was the cold cave wall
and they knew they were up against it. (Lochhead)

14The strict spatial partitioning of the population (here of two generations, that of the grandmother and that of the grandson) allows for strange, almost outlandish time travel experiences, as if a hole had been ripped in the space-time continuum. In “Still”, Kay portrays her mother looking at the deserted street from her Care Home window. In “I consider going feral”, Jamieson “checks the chaos” (Jamieson 37) that his unkempt garden has reverted to. In these poems, the act of looking out of the window poises the persona as a lone survivor on the threshold of some post-apocalyptic world that she or he is at a loss to fathom. There, spaces merge – as in Jamieson’s “I want to feel the weather” quoted above – and the persona’ sense of despondency is coupled with the blurring of defined barriers between inner and outer spaces, between the real and the virtual – “In the dream, you can’t but wonder, / has the snooze button stuck?” (77) – as well as between life pre-pandemic, the timelessness of the quarantine, and the future beyond Covid-19. Jamieson’s war-like poem “I find it hard to speak of the ineffable” thus opens with a sudden, and therefore incongruous, pivotal “or” which, while promising alternatives, quickly turns to a more tentative “maybe”, then to a definite “no”:

Or that liminal space I’m held in
between now and then, and maybe –
battles cessated in some fragile truce.
There is no retreat,
no surrendering. (72)

  • 8 In Islam, Mohammad Shafiqul, “The pandemic in poetry”, The Daily Star, 30 May 2020, https://www.the (...)
  • 9 Keyes, Corey L. M. (2002), “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life”, (...)
  • 10 See, in Camus’s The Plague: “It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile, that sensation of a void with (...)

15“The virus is slowing us down to the speed of poetry”, says American poet Billy Collins.8 It will come as no surprise that lockdown poems should dwell on the in-betweenness of beginning and end, of chronos and kairos, written as they were at a time when the amount of information as regards the future was so scarce. Because they are grounded in the moment, such poems will then tend to make extensive use of the pivotal present tense to express a tangible sense of immediacy and urgency of addressing the here and now in the most factual and topical denotation. The present tense will also serve, in Jamie’s word, to “compress” both the longing for days past and the anticipation of future events. A good example is “The Long Bench”, in which the Poet Laureate for Glasgow and NHS worker Jim Carruth writes about this “longing / […] in strange hibernation / readying for its end” (Carruth). Often traversed by the anguish induced by limited time horizons – the sense of being “on hold”, of stagnation and emptiness that the American sociologist Corey Keyes termed “languishing” in 20029 – corona poetry can therefore convey the concurrent feelings of nostalgia, impatience, fear and hope in the future10. This is further complicated by the fact that in lockdown, time races out of control and comes to a halt at once, as in Jamieson’s “I don’t know where the ejector seat button is”. In the following verses, note, again, the metonymic reference to glass as the ultimate – and lethal – obstacle:

I realise, too, how fast we’re ageing,
In living through epochal change,

as if while time has halted socially,
it has privately accelerated.
I can’t see anywhere to go. Like
somebody slammed the brakes

and now it’s all slo-mo, a free-fall
arcing by in milli-seconds

towards the foggy windshield. (41-42)

  • 11 “[…] but these are not normal times / & the poetry must be square to catch it / how else can sorrow (...)
  • 12 Prologue to the “Makar to Makar” series of readings which was produced by National Theatre of Scotl (...)

16Poetry will not stop the clocks when the world has already been stopped in its tracks. But it can serve to actively reappraise the passing of time, to inhabit this “slo-mo”, “sense the sadness” (20), “catch” these abnormal times, and “weigh the sorrow” (Gunn).11 The use of action verbs coupled with a strong self-reflexive stance is not uncommon in pandemic poetry, with poets feeling compelled to state in so many words why they write, who they write to, and what they hope their work will achieve: “a kind of love-stream between us all”, says Jamieson (15). Through their somewhat impressionistic contemplation of the world and Pérec-like reflections on everyday life in lockdown, they strive to alleviate both their and their readers’ anguish and anxiety. As stated by Kay whose role as the Scots Makar is precisely to produce poetry that relates to significant events in the nation, the point is “to accompany people in their own homes – to offer solace and hope. A great mix of poetry and music – food for the soul.”12 A powerful tool for reflecting on how writing can provide a space for healing, these poems also relate to the way the pandemic disrupted not just their authors’ everyday lives but also their artistic practice by exposing the challenges of representation that the context produced.

17At the same time as it seeks to overcome the barriers to representing illness and isolation, pandemic poetry offers a reflective portrayal of the difficulties surrounding the act of writing in times of personal hardship. We then become privy to the poets’ struggles with mental health when in isolation, especially as regards language and memory attrition. Kay writes and reads “Where’s my keys” in the voice of an elderly woman with dementia, when Jamieson devotes four poems to his own frustration at “losing the habit of speech” – (“Soon I will only meow / or bark / or quack”, Jamieson 19; also in “I read the guidance on Auto-lalia”, 55), at his failure in retaining information (“I have no poetry”, 27), or at his sudden realisation that he is “among the old and vulnerable”: “That I am quite old, I cannot / sensibly deny, // cut open, cracked and broken, confused, and blind / to some degree” (21). Jamieson chooses to capture the disruptive effect of the virus, here his own sense of despondency and compromised body image, within his poems of recovery.

18Others like Kevin MacNeil turn lockdown into an opportunity to “reassess [their] own attitude towards poetry”, a form of self-imposed retreat conducive to meditative activity. MacNeil’s poem “More Transparent than Rain” and its accompanying video showing him reading slightly off-screen next to his sleepy dog Molly were posted on Hugh McMillan’s Pestilence Poems website on 9 May 2020. There again, the piece and blog are clearly stated to seek to “alleviate that locked-down feeling” and to “use this time of isolation to bring poets, readers, and, in this case greyhounds, together”. The poem is a means of connecting to others despite lockdown, as well as a “response” to Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa who died of acute pneumonia – a condition not dissimilar from severe forms of Covid-19 – in 1933. It also serves to refocus MacNeil’s priorities and restate his ambition to work and write for the common good:

A poem where the poet is a compassionate deed,
A poem that’s epic, invisible, heroic – a sutra
Infused with the fallible Bodhisattva ideal – that is the kind
Of poet I would like to be, a reincarnation, perhaps
Not of Burns or Donnchadh Bàn but sincere, altruistic Miyazawa Kenji. (MacNeil)

19By responding to Miyazawa’s famous inspirational poem “Strong in the Rain”, MacNeil’s “More Transparent than Rain” is to be read and listened to as a means of relating across borders, languages and circumstances, and as an incentive to all to “not be defeated” and show endurance, compassion and kindness. Offered as a beacon of hope in the midst of crisis, the poem echoes with Kay’s second Sunday poem titled “Clap the Carers”, in which she meticulously thanks those who cared for her mother when she herself could not, and extends her gratitude to

[…] everybody
Every single Carer in a Nursing Home, Care Home, or in someone’s home

Up and down the breadth of the country
Across the land and out to sea

To France and Spain and Italy
For treating all our mums and dads

Our daughters and sons, our brothers and sisters,
So kindly (Kay)

20If, like “Clap the Carers”, a number of corona poems are legitimately dedicated to those who care (NHS workers and poets), those who don’t often get the attention they deserve. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, pandemic poetry can also voice anger at the government’s handling of the crisis, an anger that Boris Johnson gets his fair share of. See in Kay’s “Mask” for instance – “too few goggles, gloves, gowns, Johnson doing a ring around, / Carers compelled to wear bin bags. Doctors decked out in out of date masks. Time lags” – or in Jamieson’s anaphoric, vitriolic attack on Westminster’s politics “I call it now what it is, a culling”:

A culling of the old.
A culling of the sick.
A culling of the poor,

a culling of the weak.

Aim stated: immunity.

You heard it too. (Jamieson 74)

21Jamieson’s apostrophe to the reader (“I call” / “You heard”) appears to require a response both emotional and political, with corona poetry serving to expose the government’s failure at providing support to those who needed it most. Several poems from Plague Clothes also address the communication strategies of both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. In “I despair of our Leaders”, “I see the Leader in a flattering new guise”, “I wonder what fake news to believe” and “I listen as the Great Leader issues a Great Decree”, the tone wavers between resentment at the government’s slow response to the pandemic and sarcasm. See Jamieson’s following take on the controversial message “Stay alert” that came to replace the “Stay at home” slogan after lockdown restrictions were eased by Johnson in May 2020:

But now, now that I’m a Lert and fully functional,
I have no option but to ask of the honourable member
for Uxbridge


d’ye think yer daein,

yaprickya? (75)

  • 13 Such poetic attacks on Johnson’s policies are by no means exclusive to Scottish authors. For simila (...)
  • 14 (...)
  • 15 “It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: man (...)

22Irreverent and weaponised,13 corona poetry will then turn into personal attacks at a Prime Minister who allegedly said in November 2020 that he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than order another lockdown.14 Likewise, Johnson’s apparent carelessness and lack of empathy is targeted by Joy Hendry in her long, harsh poem ‘Loved Ones”, posted online by Hugh McMillan in June 2020. There, she blames “the Blond Bombast”, the “blonde and favoured, skeely and steely politician who knows how to turn a good phrase / If not when to lock stable doors” and who, by overusing the phrase “loved ones”,15 deprived it of its very meaning.

I have grown to hate that mantra
as even those well grown in rhetoric intone it, sanctify it, incense it,
aft it about, dust it off
and down, sanitised daily
to keep it bright and clean. (Hendry)

23Here is perhaps another task for poets: to call their readers’ attention to Covid Newspeak (“loved ones”, “herd immunity”, “social distancing”…), and to monitor the government’s use of language at a time when each much-awaited word or turn of phrase can so drastically inflect our ability to cope with the world after it has taken such a sudden turn for the worse. With the pandemic sending Plutchik’s wheel spinning, we members of the public may indeed need poets, if not political leaders, to acknowledge and articulate our emotions, including fear, sadness, trust, hope and, as it now referred to, “pandemic anger” – in this case, the collective and aversive emotions about policy-makers generated during this extraordinary crisis.

24Ought we then also to read, listen to and watch Kay’s three-part “Fare Well” poem from the angle of affective or emotional politics? “Fare Well” was commissioned by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and produced by the commercial company Underbelly with the financial support of the City of Edinburgh Council, EventScotland, The Scottish Government and Creative Scotland. The multi-media piece combines music, poetry, film, and drone technology into an innovative and high-tech “response on how to close the door on 2020 and celebrate the start of 2021”. 16From 29 to 31 December 2020, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay released a short film a day in which Kay’s trilingual poem is voiced by Scottish actors to a musical score mingling Scottish folk music – “Auld Lang Syne” was a must – and electronic Celtic fusion by the Skye-based band Niteworks. Itself a syncretic mixture of new and borrowed verses by Burns, MacDiarmid and other national bards, the poem was interpreted through a swarm drone show forming figures and words in the sky; among them, “SCOTLAND”, national symbols such as the stag and the Saltire – “The Saltire’s / been a warning cross. Dinny come too near” (part 1) – and the polysemous message “We are one” that, incidentally, does not feature in Kay’s original poem (are “we” Scottish, British, European…?). Aimed at bidding “Good riddance to the last page torn / from this scunnered year” (part 3), the piece falls into three parts, or “flights”, that span the range of collective emotions generated by the pandemic: grief in “The Past”, despair and anxiety in “The Present”, hope in “The Future”, all set against the backdrop of a distinctively Scottish sky. Kay’s “Fare Well” is clearly intent on creating a kind of sensus communis around recognisable national symbols, and the notion that whatever sense can be made of the pandemic must ultimately serve the collective and build its resilience to future (health, economic or political) crises. Some mantras are more uplifting than others.

  • 17 “Endurance is built on a plan, then, but this plan does not fully dictate what the work becomes. Th (...)

25Whether stoic or irate, hopeful or desperate, focused on personal or collective experiences of the Covid crisis, Scottish corona poetry covers a wide breadth of emotions. It offers its readers diverse means of coping with the circumstances, of being in the world when the world is shut down, and, through the burgeoning and dissemination of poems online, of connecting to others when the opportunities to do so are few. Those who used their time in lockdown to share their poetry managed to articulate their readers’ sense of vulnerability, isolation, finitude and discontent, at the same time as they strove to create interactions and foster engagement with their networked audiences. In this sense, corona poetry can be approached as an individual performance of endurance,17 as a form of collective diary, or as socially-engaged public art. Far from giving rise to the disciplinary projects that were the focus of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, our Internet-mediated adjustment to the plague has allowed not just personal responses to multiple separations, but also the expression of the political dream of a nationwide supportive community – a utopia, some might say.

26The many creative responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have shown that poems can go viral too, all the more so when they are provoked by the not just “curious” but increasingly disquieting “business of being in the world” (Jamie). They have also demonstrated how, when technology-mediated, Scottish poetry is able to shape-shift into complex word-image-sound apparatuses – and even fly up into the air – to engage conversation with its readers and offer them something to hold on to: a lifebuoy, their “daily ration” of the outside world (De Luca).

27There remains that corona poems may eventually prove to be a little too occasional, topical and well-suited to stand the test of time. It is unsure if we will be able to relate to them outwith the Covid crisis – in other words, if their aesthetic (autonomous) function will prevail over their social or therapeutic (heteronomous) function in the not-too-distant future.

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Altman, Janet Gurkin [1945] (1982), Epistolarity. Approaches to a Form, Ohio State University Press.

Camus, Albert, The Plague [1947] (1991), trans. Stuart Gilbert, Vintage.

Carruth, Jim (2020), “The Long Bench”,

Deveron Projects “Being Social”,

De Luca, Christine (2020), “The Daily Ration”,

Finkelpearl, Tom (2013), What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Duke University Press.

Foucault, Michel [1975] (1995), Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan, Vintage.

Gunn, George (2020), “Lockdown”,

Hendry, Joy (2020), “Loved Ones”, in “A plague of poetry”, 16 June 2020.

Jamieson, Robert Alan (2020), Plague Clothes. Poems from the Covid-recovery love-stream, Taproot Press.

Kay, Jackie (2020), “Covid-19 Crisis: New Poetry”,

Lochhead, Liz (2020), “The Spaces Between”,

MacNeil, Kevin (2020), “More Transparent than Rain”,

McMillan, Hugh, Pestilence Poems (blog),

National Theatre Scotland Scenes for Survival,

Scottish Poetry Library,

Shalson, Lara (2018), Performing endurance: art and Politics since 1960, Cambridge University Press.

The Guardian, “Poetry in a pandemic”, editorial, 29 January 2021,

The Guardian “Poems to get us through”,

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1 “The plague as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder had as its medical and political correlative discipline. Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of 'contagions', of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.

If it is true that the leper gave rise to rituals of exclusion, which to a certain extent provided the model for and general form of the great Confinement, then the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects. Rather than the massive, binary division between one set of people and another, it called for multiple separations, individualizing distributions, an organization in depth of surveillance and control, an intensification and a ramification of power. The leper was caught up in a practice of rejection, of exile-enclosure; he was left to his doom in a mass among which it was useless to differentiate; those sick of the plague were caught up in a meticulous tactical partitioning in which individual differentiations were the constricting effects of a power that multiplied, articulated and subdivided itself; the great confinement on the one hand; the correct training on the other. The leper and his separation; the plague and its segmentations. The first is marked; the second analysed and distributed. The exile of the leper and the arrest of the plague do not bring with them the same political dream. The first is that of a pure community, the second that of a disciplined society. Two ways of exercising power over men, of controlling their relations, of separating out their dangerous mixtures. The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies - this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city” (Foucault, 198).

2 “How can we deliver socially engaged arts projects when we cannot meet each other face to face? What are the possibilities beyond the digital and what opportunities does the digital offer us? What are the relationships with locality and the community we are working with? How can issues surrounding justice, rights and politics be heard by the crowds? Is social engagement possible during lockdown?”, accessed 10 April 2021.


4 See also “I begin an argument with myself” and “I read the guidance on Auto-lalia”, Jamieson 28 and 55 respectively.

5 “It’s always a great test of text to put breath into it, so to speak, and yesterday’s readings were also a test of my breath itself after being ill. Today, I think that, as I have a book-full of such translations in need of that kind of test, 100 plus in number, I’m goint to read some more while I’m locked down and recovering.” Jamieson, Facebook update, 13 April 2020.

6 Jost, François, “L’Evolution d’un genre : le roman épistolaire dans les lettres occidentales”, Essais de littérature comparée, 380-402, Fribourg : Editions Universitaires, 1968.

7 « […] now that we are all refugees / squatting around the campfires of our own complacency » (Gunn)

8 In Islam, Mohammad Shafiqul, “The pandemic in poetry”, The Daily Star, 30 May 2020,

9 Keyes, Corey L. M. (2002), “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life”, Journal of Health and Social Behavior Vol. 43, No. 2, Selecting Outcomes for the Sociology of Mental Health: Issues of Measurement and Dimensionality, 207-222. See also the article by psychologist Adam Grant, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing”, New York Times, 19 April 2021,

10 See, in Camus’s The Plague: “It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile, that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.” (Camus, 71) “Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed, the here and now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments” (Camus, 181-182).

11 “[…] but these are not normal times / & the poetry must be square to catch it / how else can sorrow be weighed” (Gunn).

12 Prologue to the “Makar to Makar” series of readings which was produced by National Theatre of Scotland in association with HOME Manchester and Edinburgh International Book Festival and the School of Arts and Media.

13 Such poetic attacks on Johnson’s policies are by no means exclusive to Scottish authors. For similar takes on the British PM by English poets and writers, see Mark Kirkbride’s “Super-Spreaders” in Mick Quille (ed), Handbook for 2021, The Bread and Roses Poetry Award Anthology 2020, Culture Matters, and David Hare’s satirical poem “Agony Uncle”, video-recorded for The Guardian in April 2021:


15 “It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” PM statement at coronavirus press conference 5 April 2021, In Hendry’s poem: “He looked us all straight in the heart and warned, compassion to hand, / That some of us were / Going to lose / Our loved ones. // Strangely moving, that phrase, / Loved Ones, on the lips / Of one more familiar with / Balling and blundering / Shoving and hustlering / Spluttering and posturing, / If not downright bullying. / He looked us all in the eye of the soul / From the sole of his soul / Churchilliating / That Some / Of our Loved Ones / Were going to die.” (Hendry)


17 “Endurance is built on a plan, then, but this plan does not fully dictate what the work becomes. The artist designs and then endures an unfolding of events that can never be fixed from the start. This indeterminacy arises from another essential element of endurance: namely, that it is always performed in relation to forces that are beyond the performer’s control.” (Shalson 12)

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Camille MANFREDI, « Live/love-streams: poetry and relating at the time of Covid-19 »E-rea [En ligne], 19.2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2022, consulté le 24 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Western Brittany, HCTI EA4249
Camille Manfredi is Professor of Scottish literature and visual arts at the University of Western Brittany, Brest. Her published work includes the monographs Alasdair Gray: le faiseur d’Écosse (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012) and Nature and Space in Contemporary Scottish Writing and Art (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), as well as the edited volume Alasdair Gray: Ink for Worlds (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). She is the co-editor, with Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon and Scott Hames, of Scottish Writing After Devolution: Edges of the New (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

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