“You don’t think of the genre having much currency in the age of social media,” Neville says. “Yet people seem to find comfort in writing poetry in times of adversity. And many are surprisingly good.”
For example, Alec O’Halloran, of Abbotsford, wrote words to be sung to the “tune/pace/piano” of a Rolling Stones’ classic: So Goodbye Ruby Princess! We’re gonna hang our shame on you.
The library launched The Diary Files on May 4, asking people from across NSW to describe – in no more than 300 words – how the pandemic has affected their lives. Since then more than 900 entries have been submitted, with some correspondents contributing multiple times.
The idea was to provide future social historians with a readily accessible source of how ordinary Australians were feeling in these most extraordinary of times. The last time Australia was crippled so drastically by a pandemic was the Spanish Flu outbreak a century ago.
“But our records are remarkably thin about how people were feeling during the 1919 pandemic,” Neville says. “The personal impact of how the pandemic affected that generation is missing.
“Today fewer and fewer people keep diaries or journals. Increasingly people use Facebook or Instagram to record what is happening in their lives.”
The oldest contributor to the Diary Files is 102. But what surprised Neville as much as the amount of poetry submitted is the number of schoolchildren who have posted their feelings and fears on the site.
“I love poetry and try my best to write it but am still getting there,” says Montana Markland, 14, from Tweed Heads. Yet one of her Diary Files entries could have been submitted as a poem:
“Feel the wind in your hair, the pounding of your feet on the pavement as you run, the rain pattering on your roof, the laughter of the moment.
“Every sunset, every sunrise, every leaf, every person, every word… It all matters. That’s what I have learnt from this.”
Former academic Wendy Blaxland – author of 112 books and 28 plays – has submitted 21 poems to The Diary Files. Mother’s Day 2020 describes how emotional she became in her local supermarket, joining “the carefully separated shoppers/with sheafs of chrysanthemums/in the tops of their trolleys/above the boxes of chocolates”.
“My mother has been dead for over 30 years,” Blaxland says. “It’s not normal for me to be wiping away tears surreptitiously next to the carrots.”
The reason so many people turn to poetry in difficult times, she explains, is “because poetry generally springs from deep feelings: fear, love, doubt, anger, joy.
“When we read or listen to poetry so we feel less alone. Someone else has put into words the way we think or feel.”