Poetry in the time of COVID-19

In the first quarter of 2020, the most important thing that happened was not the COVID-19 pandemic. That was just another stupid pathogen senselessly murdering innocents. Temporarily bigger than the flu, but going to be much more short-lived, and still way smaller than tuberculosis or malaria.

No, the most important thing that happened in the first quarter of 2020 was our response to it. With unprecedented swiftness, our entire species coordinated to counter this new threat. There have been previous global campaigns against infectious diseases, such as the eradication of smallpox and the imminent eradication of polio. In number of life-years saved, these are among the greatest successes humans have achieved. But those lasted for decades, to end enemies older than civilisation. Against COVID-19, we are demonstrating a swiftness of species-wide teamwork that is entirely new – a level of coordination capability never before seen in the observable universe. Nobody can seriously doubt we are now more capable of fighting a pandemic than we ever were – and since there is a lot of obvious room for improvement, we’re already looking for ways to do even better next time.

Why talk about this in a progress report for a poetry project? Because this is the exact thing that the fourth Secular Sermon, the one I’m currently writing, is about: humanity’s unique ability to cooperate that allows, and forces, progress. Our growing ability to stop a mindless virus from killing millions of thinking, feeling humans is just about the most unambiguous example of progress that I can think of.

Right now, this perspective that writing The Force that Guides Humanity (or whatever it’ll end up being called) gives me seems fairly uncommon. Right now everyone seems to be talking about what to do, what happens next week or next month, who is helping, who is being counter-productive and what all this does to the economy. People complain there isn’t a vaccine widely available right now, although most agree there will be one next year and that already implies a momentous achievement.

Speaking of progress, I got a major realization how to restructure the poem into a more satisfying arc, but that’s a big irreducible chunk of work and for a much too long time, I failed to reserve a big chunk of time to actually do that. When I’m not working or asleep, there are always two small children and a very pregnant wife to take care of, and myself to take care of too. I knew I needed five to eight uninterrupted hours for this next bit of the fourth Sermon and of course there’s no way I can have that in the months after our new baby arrives in May.

So my wife, who is much better organized than I am, helped me make space in our schedule for two “poetry days” where I could do that big chunk. And that worked great! The hard part of the fourth Sermon is finished, after three and a half years. This seems to confirm what I had thought before, that my process cannot entirely be split up into small subtasks. Some of it just takes a big chunk of time and if I don’t make that happen I just get stuck. Now what remains to be done with the fourth Sermon all seems to be doable in smaller chunks, which remain possible even in these stressful times.

Even before those two poetry days, I had reworked the translation of Children of the Milky Way into Kinder dieser Galaxie. This was another thing I could do in small chunks, stanza by stanza, entirely in working memory, so it was possible to do it while engaged in non-cognitive tasks. The new translation is a lot better, and probably took more effort cumulatively, than the original English language lyrics. Now much more happy with it, I edited the old blog post and the downloads page. My dad uploaded it to the Petrucci Music Library. Few things are more wonderful than my little daughter singing this song with me.

With a few friends, we tried what happens if we sing the two versions, some of us in English, some of us in German, at the same time. Turns out that doesn’t work at all.

The Ballad of the Camping Detectives was another little side project that didn’t take much time or concentration. It came out when I tried a new writing workflow. The experiment was successful, since I learned this alternative workflow is not worth pursuing further.

I wonder if I should translate the first Sermon into German. The song translation is good evidence this is doable. It would undoubtedly be a huge amount of work, but it would be work that can be done in small chunks, stanza by stanza, so it is a way to keep going if the fourth Sermon is finished before I can find the big chunk of time that I’ll need to start the fifth, which is almost certainly going to be named The Signal and the Voice. It would be nice for most of the people who actually care about the Seven Secular Sermons right now, i.e. my friends and family. Most of them speak German better than they speak English. I’d love to read it to my grandparents, for example.