Enduring, Surviving, Articulating: the HIV-AIDS Pandemic and New York Poetry

How does a culture record and remember its experiences? How does a culture bear witness to tragedy? How do we speak to the unspeakable? What are the particular responsibilities of language in doing so?

Dr Rona Cran considers the role of the poet in a pandemic, focusing on the HIV-AIDS crisis as it unfolded in New York City during the 1980s-1990s. New York’s poets engaged in complex and varied processes of revising, negotiating, re-imagining, and making meaning out of narratives about HIV-AIDS, asking pressing questions about disability, racism, gendered injustice, and love in the context of a pandemic – questions that echo meaningfully in our present moment. From angrily legible accounts of personal experience to quieter representations of the complexities of enduring, surviving, and articulating ‘the unreconstructed story’ (Ashbery) of AIDS, the poetry that emerged from a city in the grip of a decades-long tragedy reveals the gulf between the ideology surrounding the pandemic and the particular experiences of people living with and dying from AIDS. Such disclosures are couched in the intricate webs of language that make our universe knowable and habitable, even when it isn’t, revealing articulation to be a crucial part of survival and remembrance.

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