Poetry About Loss

The Academy of American Poets defines the elegy as follows:

The elegy began as an ancient Greek metrical form and is traditionally written in response to the death of a person or group. Though similar in function, the elegy is distinct from the epitaph, ode, and eulogy: the epitaph is very brief; the ode solely exalts; and the eulogy is most often written in formal prose. The elements of a traditional elegy mirror three stages of loss. First, there is a lament, where the speaker expresses grief and sorrow, then praise and admiration of the idealized dead, and finally consolation and solace.  

I’ve never written a formal elegy but I think it is definitely something some of my poems work towards. I began writing poetry, consistently, after the death of my aunt and her death, as a subject, followed me through the rest of my undergraduate coursework and into my graduate studies in Texas. It never occurred to me to sit down and try and write a formal elegy because the ideas for the poems just seem to keep coming and coming. I was in mourning and the writing was how I got through it. It was a long process and I still return to her sometimes, although in later poems it seems to be more of a celebration. 
Weeping Woman, Pablo Picasso 1937

I know that many poets use words to work through loss and difficult times. Confessionalism, which I discovered through the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, emerged from the idea of writing as a coping mechanism. Of course the poems of Plath and Sexton are more than just therapy, but I guess I never really realized how much I used my poetry to process loss until fairly recently. I’ve written about the loss of family, animals, and even bigger losses like Costa Concordia. 

In fact, one of my favorite poems by my favorite poet, Elizabeth Bishop, is about loss. I use this poem as an example of revision in my creative writing class. The poem, “One Art”, shows a tremendous change from the first draft to the final draft, and our textbook, Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway, includes both drafts, so students can see the journey the poem took. Admittedly, this poem is a villanelle and not necessarily in the traditional form of an elegy, but the list that Bishop crafts in her poem definitely lament and grieve but she does not find solace at the end:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
 I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident 
the art of losing’s not too hard to master 
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. 

This particular class enjoyed the poem quite a bit and we had a good discussion about the revision process the poem went through. More about this poem and the revisions it went through can be found in Ellen Bryant Voigt’s excellent book of essays entitled The Flexible Lyric. 

Writing about loss can be problematic in the way that all subjects that a poet returns to over and over again can be problematic. I definitely felt like I was in a rut for a certain period of time, but I also feel like I had to write those poems (successful and unsuccessful) just to work them out of my system. I remember being so relieved after reading some poetry by Anna Akhmatova in a graduate class and being inspired to write my poem “Vigil.” It was felt like the beginning of a departure into something new, and at that point, I was ready. 



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