Pandemania by Daniel Halpern discusses the changing attitudes, habits the social norms of people during a pandemic situation. It touches on ideas of hygiene and how expectations surrounding things like handshakes and even breathing can be altered. When it comes to something like disease, everyone unknown is made into an enemy, with suspicion and doubt leading people to alienate others in their effort to remain uninfected.
Summary of Pandemania
Daniel Halpern discusses the general lives of people living within a pandemic, focusing on how they interact with each other, and comparing this to how people normally act. He discovers that physical contact such as handshakes become a thing of the past, the uncertainty surrounding other people being a risk people are not willing to take in these new conditions. As much as this poem is about health risks, the focus of Pandemania is more so about human social behavior, pointing out fallacies and little changes that reflect the innate fear people have of becoming sick. Halpern concludes that a health pandemic changes people, making them more hostile to strangers and alienating others in their drive for perfect health.
Structure of Pandemania
Pandemania is split into 30 lines, with one continuous stanza. There is no rhyme scheme within the poem, but ideas are often connected through enjambment. Ironically, having a structure that is so cohesive is exactly the opposite of what Halpern discusses, instead of pointing to how people distance themselves during a pandemic. This sense of irony could reflect how even trivial things like breathing become vilified during pandemics.
You can read the full poem here.
Poetic Techniques in Pandemania
Daniel Halpern uses enjambment throughout Pandemania, often as a method of connecting ideas. The flowing from one line to another could be a reflection of the passing of disease, freely moving from one host to the next. The use of enjambment can also be understood as a way of speeding up the poem, moving the lines to end stops which emphasise key ideas within the poem.
Building on this, the use of caesura and end stop are points of emphasis within the poem. Halpern builds up metric speed before halting his poem, the focus of Pandemania being placed around these deliberate pauses.
Pandemania blends two words commonly used in conversation around dire circumstances – ‘Pandemonium’ and ‘Mania’. Pandemonium is a word that draws upon a general sense of panic, it is noisy, chaotic, and confusing. The word ‘Pandemonium’ was also historically known as the highest state of disorder, with Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ naming the meeting place for Satan and his demons ‘Pandemonium’. ‘Mania’, on the other hand, relates to delusion, overactivity, and touches on insanity.
By combining these words, the mixed word ‘Pandemania’ encompasses both ideas, while also being a close homophone for ‘Pandemic’, denoting the situation which the poem discusses. It is an incredibly clever title, and the idea embedded within it extends throughout the poem.
There are fewer introductions
Even among men.
The suggestion of ‘are’ within the first line, being written in the present tense, is that Halpern is living through a pandemic, or perhaps is presenting evidence that he knows to be true. Pandemania begins with the idea of ‘fewer introductions’, instantly suggesting the isolation and a lack of person to person contact. This is a side effect of a health crisis, socialisation is reduced incredibly.
The use of ‘plague’ instills a narrative of disease and death, the reader can understand what Halpern is discussing now he has introduced these ideas. This is extended by the suspension of ‘jocularity’, the lack of joking and jokes being attributed to this more serious and hostile social climate.
Even arguments, ‘bellicose’ jokes, becomes less important and less inclined to provoke arguments. Halpern suggests this is true ‘even among men’, the suggestion that ‘men’ are more likely to brawl and start fights being parallel by the sense that people are behaving strangely, not even this characteristic of ‘men’ being induced.
Breathing’s generally wary,
Labored, as they say, when
Well, just cautious
In inhabited air.
The ‘wary’ ‘breathing’ suggests that even the most basic of human functions are being monitored and frowned upon during the time of ‘plague’. People are worried about others, not wanting to contract disease and therefore not liking them ‘breathing’ too close. The ‘laboured’ state of ‘breathing’ also relates to those suffering problems with health during the pandemic, the difficulty breathing reflecting a failing respiratory system.
There is a double entendre evoked by ‘the end is at hand’. Halpern is not only referencing the nearing death of the person with ‘laboured breathing’, but moreover is also stating that they became infected ‘at hand’, that is, through hand contact. This ‘hand’ contact caused them to contract the disease and therefore their ‘end’ was ‘at hand’.
As for ongoing dialogue,
A new sense of boundary.
There has even been a change within the speech patterns of those within the pandemic. Whereas people used to be outspoken, using ‘an exuberant plosive’ to ‘make a point’, there is now a ‘squirrelling of air space’, a certain reluctance to speak with outward force. A plosive is a sound such as ‘P’ in ‘Pattern’ that forces air outwards. Considering people’s fear of other’s breathing, it is understandable why people are reluctant to use these sounds.
The ‘new sense of boundary’ is effectively summarising Pandemania in its entirety. Halpern is pointing out how distance people have become, outlining the habits that have changed to make them this way. The new ‘boundary’ is a reflection of the social isolation people now engage in, never coming close enough to infect or contract disease.
Genghis Khan said the hand
Is the first thing one man gives
To another. Not in this war.
Halpern suggests that while handshakes were one ‘the first thing one man gives / to another’, this has changed completely. He uses the idea ‘war’ to describe the reduction of infection and the transferal of disease. The sense that humanity is, to use Halpern’s metaphor, fighting against disease compounds the idea that this is a serious situation, one that cannot be taken lightly.
A gesture of limited distance
The enjambment following ‘limited distance / now suffices’ is a spatial representation of the very distance that is being adhered to. The line has a break in the form of enjambment, ‘distance’ literally distanced from the next word. The sense of distance echos the earlier idea of ‘a new sense of boundary’, the gaps between people opening up in this new social climate.
There is a lack of movement and physicality that is firmly defined here in the poem. The ‘nod’ a partial moment of the head, the ‘smile’ being classified as ‘minor’ and the movement of ‘a hand’ only ‘slightly raised’. Halpern suggests that people become a shadow of their former selves, the expressionism and energy seemingly sucked out of people during these trying times. Everyone moves slowly and slightly, almost like if they are not noticed the disease won’t come for them. This lack of passion in movement also reflects the idea that people have become more hostile in the pandemic, an idea expanded upon in the following lines.
Not in search of its counterpart,
Breathing on the other side of the gate.
The complete alienation and othering of humans are communicated in these final lines. Halpern compares ‘Each beautiful stranger’ to ‘a barbarian /breathing on the other side of the gate’, the social distancing between characters here representing the social borders that have arrises between people. The idea of beauty is only briefly touched on within the poem, the excitement at new and interesting people dashed instantly by their comparison to ‘barbarians’. Strangers are vilified by the pandemic, people inherently not trusting one another and focusing a social distance to be kept in place.
The final words of Pandemania focus on the ‘other side of the gate’, finishing the poem with a rumination on a symbol of borders. People are separated both physically, and socially within the poem – the representation of ‘gate’ becoming a border that drives people even further away.