January 29, 2014

Forms of Grief

Since Biblical lamentations, and even before, writers have poured their grief into writing.  The poems of grief seem to bring together the personal, cultural, political story together into a "social" form, meaning one designed for a wider audience. The poems of grief might fit into public discourse, but often the individual poem presents just one voice in one particular situation in one staggering loss.

The epitaph was chiseled onto headstones. The ode began as a heroic, ceremonial form and now, in current practice, exalts or celebrates a person or object. It does not have a particular form, but some poets have used meter and verse, sometimes sonnets.  The elegy, requiem, and kaddish forms offer their structures to poets.

In The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, the editors Eavan Boland and Mark Strand write:
In the traditional elegy, the grief the poet expresses is rarely a private one....In all societies death constitutes a cultural event--as well as an individual loss. That the elegy speaks to this: that it locates the cultural customs of death in whichever society it occurs, adds greatly to its power. The best elegies will always be sites of struggle between custom and decorum on one hand, and private feeling on the other.  
Many poems have honored the life and death of other poets.  W.H. Auden, in his poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats:"
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives
A way of happening, a mouth.  
According to the American Academy of Poets, the elegy once was written in formal verse and reflected three stages of grief: grief and sorrow of the speaker, praise of the idealized dead, and consolation and solace. The regular rhythm and meter of this poem evokes the skilled language of Yeats and also provides some comment about the role of poetry itself and the moneyed culture that increasingly isolates and alienates its individuals.

Requiem is a musical composition adopted by poets.
Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) wrote powerfully of the loss of her husband and son to Stalin's terror. The long poem has several sections (named:  Instead of a Preface, Dedication, Introduction (Prelude), I-X, Crucifixion, Epilogue). The work recalls the Christian Stations of the Cross.  It begins with an arrest or sentence and it follows (sections bear dates over several years) imprisonment and eventually her husband's and son's execution, along the deaths of many, many more in the same situation.  Here are excerpts (in translation):
...Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) - Could one ever describe
this'  And I answered - 'I can." It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.
Mountains fall before this grief,
A mighty river stops its flow,
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.
Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don't know this.

I have a lot of work to do today;
I need to slaughter memory,
Turn my living soul to stone
Then teach myself to live again....
I will never forget a single thing. Even in new
Even if they clamp shut my tormented mouth
Through which one hundred million people scream:
This poem also is called a "poem of witness."  The witness of the atrocity narrates the story, and is perhaps one of the few to be able to speak. Carolyn Forche has collected poetry of witness into an anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, and she notes that these poems (using formal or diverse and wide inventions) are both personal and political, and inhabit a space she calls "social." In her introduction, she says: "the social is a place of resistance and struggle, ...books published, ...poems read, and protest disseminated."   Forche also writes: "The resistance to terror is what the makes the world habitable...."

Anna Akmatova's work was celebrated by Russians in her life time although she was subject to political suppression of her work. She often engaged Biblical story in her poems. Her first book in 1914 was titled Rosary.  One well known poem, "Lot's Wife" uses biblical story as a container for her own experience and grief.

In another poem by Camille T. Dungy, "Requiem," the narrator tells the story of being hit by a bus on a city street.  The moment of collision and the moments afterward arrest the reader's attention with the poem's praise and horror:
Will you believe me when I tell you it was beautiful--
....Will you believe me
when I tell you I had never been so in love
with anyone as I was, then, with everyone I saw? 
The way an age-worn man held his wife's shaking arm,
supporting the weight that seemed to sing from the heart
she clutched. Knowing her eyes embraced the pile
that was me, he guided her sacked body through the crowd.
And the way one woman began a fast the moment she looked 
under the wheel. I saw her swear off decadence.
I saw her start to pray. You see, I was so beautiful
the woman sent to clean the street used words
like police tape to keep back a young boy
seconds before he rounded the grisly bumper.   
Note the detail about others in this poem, the careful observation of the most wretched and visceral reactions to the crumpled body and blood on the pavement.  The reader does not know if the narrator has died in that accident or not; it seems as if the narrator must have.  It is vivid. It brings a sense of holiness in that moment, reflecting the passion of a Christ-like person. The poems of grief that are strongest seem to grasp the holiness of life.

Poets have used other musical forms in poetry.  Natasha Trethewey, the current US Poet Laureate, used a blues form in "Graveyard Blues."  This poem is from her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Native Guard:
When the preacher called out I held up my hand;
When he called for a witness I raised my hand—
Death stops the body’s work, the soul’s a journeyman. 
The sun came out when I turned to walk away,
Glared down on me as I turned and walked away—
My back to my mother, leaving her where she lay.
It is a haunting poem that echoes with a haunting sound. This book combines two stories:  one is the story of the Black Union soldiers (called the Native Guard) during the Civil War, and the other is a story of her mother's murder.  The collection is superb.

The Jewish Kaddish is an ancient prayer of praise that expresses a longing for God.  Originally recited by rabbis after sermons, the Kaddish eventually began to be used to provide comfort after the death of a loved one during a year of mourning and then on the year anniversary of the death. The Kaddish is recited by mourners with an Amen response recited by the congregation.  In mourning, the prayer remains one of sanctification and calling for the kingdom of God.  Allen Ginsberg, in his poem "Kaddish," adopted this form to provide a homage for his mother, a biography of her life within his own wide-ranging, Whitmanesque, beat-poet vision that tumbles with minute detail and large questions. This is an excerpt:
And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember, prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of Answers--and my own imagination of a withered leaf--at dawn--
Dreaming back thru life, Your time--and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,
the final moment--
the flower burning in the Day--and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia,
or a crumpled bed that never existed--like a poem in the dark--escaped back to Oblivion
No more to say, and nothing to weep for but the Beings in the Dream,
trapped in its disappearance, sighing, screaming with it, buy and selling pieces of phantom, worshipping each other, worshipping the God included in it all--longing or inevitability?--while it lasts, a Vision anything more?
It leaps about me, as I go out and walk the street...
Each of these poets present works that are visceral and brilliant in the way that the details of a personal loss are woven into the details of loss by others as well. Each presents a narrator who seems awakened to the world in the midst of sorrow and mourning, and because of this, their work is a gift.  Bertolt Brecht said:
In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times. 

Work Cited:

Akmatova, Anna. "Requiem."  PoemHunter.  Retrieved 29 January 2014. Web. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/requiem/

"Anna Akmatova" Academy of American Poets.  Retrieved 29 January 2014. Web. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/1

Auden, W. "In Memory of WB Yeats."  Academy of American Poets.  Retrieved 29 January 2014.  Web. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544

Boland, Evan and Mark Strand, Editors,  The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. c2000 WWNorton & Co. New York. Print.

Dungy, Camille T.  "Requiem."  Poetry Foundation. Web. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/185787  See her website for more information about her:   http://www.camilledungy.com/index.htm

Forche, Carolyn, Editor.  Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness.  W. W. Norton, New York. c1993.  Print.

Ginsberg, Allen.  "Kaddish."  Poetry Foundation. Web. Retrieved 29 January 2014.  Web. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179391

"Reciting the Kaddish."  Hebrew for Christians.  Web. Retrieved 29 January 2014.  http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Prayers/Daily_Prayers/Kaddish/kaddish.html

"Poetic Form: Elegy."  Academy of American Poets. Web. 2014. Retrieved 29 January 2014. Web. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5778#sthash.5gzVAT8n.dpuf

Trethewey, Natasha.  Native Guard.  Houghton Mifflin, NY.   2007. Print.


  1. ***In the dark times, will there also be singing?
    Yes, there will be singing.
    About the dark times.***

    Stunning piece, Sheila.

  2. Thank you for these beautiful offerings on your blog. It's wonderful to see your own poet's mind weaving around and through the works of other writers that you quote, collect and reflect on. And my favorite Akhmatova poem. . .