From the modern poets Thomas Hardy and Mina Loy to the postwar poets Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Paul Muldoon, the cross-stylistic reach of the elegy remains vast, unrivaled by other poetic subjects. Among poets living today, Sharon Olds and Susan Howe could be seen as marking opposite poles of the poetry spectrum—call it confessional free verse vs. avant-garde Language writing. Except that the collage-based, anti-confessional accidentalism of Howe’s poetry, combining scraps of print and shards of photography, includes a book-length elegy for her mother, The Midnight. And Olds also devotes a book of poems to mourning a parent’s death: her opulently confessional, sensually detailed The Father, which memorializes the precise moment when the father’s last breath escapes, the moment of his being claimed by “the unliving glistening / matter of this world.” Whether vehemently spare like Louise Glück’s elegies or sprawling like Jorie Graham’s, whether cramped and fiercely patterned like Geoffrey Hill’s or lushly textured like Li-Young Lee’s, poetry of mourning flourishes in a multiplicity of styles, resilient and prolific despite our era’s challenge to traditional forms.
Why this intertwining of poetry and the elegy in the 20th century and beyond? Whether writing about the intimate deaths of family members and friends or the mass death of industrialized genocide and global war, poets have made of poetry a privileged space for mourning the dead, in resistance to the widespread suppression of grief and mourning in modern Western societies. At a time when intimate grief has been shunted aside as embarrassing, strange, or even pathological, when the dead have been shut away in the basements of hospitals and objectified in obituaries, when funeral directors have become the custodians of the dead, when mortuary rites have lost much of their meaning for the living, poets have cultivated poetry as a death-steeped language of mourning. To be sure, in recent years memorial Web sites have proliferated, grief therapists have multiplied, and movies such as Truly Madly Deeply and TV shows such as Six Feet Under have been popular; this may signal a loosening of taboos on grief. Even so, these efforts remain limited in comparison to the far more elaborate cultural apparatus of mourning in most societies around the world and in the West before the 20th century.
Among the many kinds of elegies, including elegies for family members, fellow poets, friends, animals, and even oneself, elegies mourning public losses have been among the most difficult for modern and contemporary poets to compose. W.H. Auden may have written successful poems of communal mourning, but even he knew that Winston Churchill was an impossible subject for poetry: “All attempts to write about persons or events, however important, to which the poet is not intimately related in a personal way are doomed to failure.” Intimate loss can more easily take up residence in the intricacies and indirections of poetry, whereas public losses often receive official sanction for mourning and commemoration—the deaths of politicians such as Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, celebrities and royals such as Elvis Presley and Princess Diana, soldiers such as U.S. combatants in the first Gulf War, astronauts such as those who died in the Challenger explosion, and victims of terrorism such as those killed on September 11, 2001. This orchestration of grief by the state and the commercial media, and the use of broadly shared grief—e.g., over the horrific losses of September 11—for the purposes of national self-assertion and state-sponsored aggression make communal mourning more problematic for contemporary poetry.
The widespread circulation of poems by Auden, Heaney, and others after the September 11 attacks offers clues as to how to craft a public poetry of mourning that can be true to collective grief without giving way to ideological simplifications. One lesson to be learned from the last century’s elegies is that they are at their most credible and moving when, unlike elegies that idealize the dead or our feelings for them, they acknowledge the vexed and contradictory humanity of communal mourning. In “Easter, 1916,” for example, Yeats commemorates the rebels executed for initiating Ireland’s violent 20th-century revolt against British rule, while also remembering their limitations and his divided country’s ambivalence toward them. In defiance of abstract hero worship, he even recalls one of the heroic rebels of the Easter Rising, an insurrection for Irish independence, as a “drunken, vainglorious lout,” and he dares to ask whether the rebels’ single-minded devotion to their cause was necessary, whether their stone-hearted nationalism led them to waste their lives. In the same spirit, Auden commemorates Yeats and other public figures without suppressing his disagreements with them, even highlighting Yeats’s follies, aristocratic pretensions, and misguided politics: “You were silly like us: your gift survived it all; / The parish of rich women, physical decay, / Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”
Wilfred Owen’s famous declaration that his war poems were “in no sense consolatory” provides an important paradigm for modern and contemporary elegies for victims of war, genocide, terrorism, and political violence. At their best, these poems resist the redemptive rhetoric, thinking, and imagery traditionally ingrained in poetry of mourning. As I argue at greater length in my 1994 book, Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney, modern and contemporary elegies mourn without healing; they finger the communal wounds of grief without closing them up. Anything more comforting would risk serving a nationalist, religious, or aesthetic logic of substitution, in which individual lives are redeemed in the life of the nation, institution, or artwork. In Owen’s typically unconsoling elegy “Futility,” he does not represent the war victim as mounting high as the risen sun; instead, the poet angrily dismisses “fatuous sunbeams” as unable to “stir” a dead soldier back to life, any more than his poetry can work such recuperative magic. In Seamus Heaney’s ethically self-aware poems that mourn victims of atrocities in Northern Ireland, the dead remain stubbornly dead, irredeemable even as they rise from the bog. When his “Bog Queen” is lifted from the earth, Heaney is at pains to present her not as having transcended her physical state but as a body with “hacked bone, skull-ware, / frayed stitches.”
Written in the 1960s and published during the Vietnam War, W.S. Merwin’s “The Asians Dying” likewise offers no consolation for the living and enacts no transformation of the dead: “Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead / Again again with its pointless sound.” The poem does not claim any more efficacy in redeeming the dead than does the endless drumbeat of the rain or the cycles of night and day: “The nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed,” and “Pain the horizon / Remains / Overhead. . . .” His and other communal elegies mourn the dead without attempting to effect a psychic or collective resolution that would recuperate and even justify their deaths as fruitful or ennobling, and so they risk complicity in effacing lives lost in violent conflict. In this regard, such anti-elegiac elegies resemble Maya Lin’s controversially anti-memorial memorial, which eschews any upward, transcendental thrust. Unlike the white monuments elsewhere on the Mall, the black wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial moves downward into the earth, a subterranean and massively elongated tombstone that will not translate these multitudinous losses into gains for the nation.
Yusef Komunyakaa’s elegies for the Vietnam War dead, Gwendolyn Brooks’s and Robert Hayden’s elegies for the victims of lynchings, Thom Gunn’s elegies for men killed by AIDS, Agha Shahid Ali’s elegies for war victims in Kashmir: these and other bracingly skeptical poems of communal mourning—vexed, self-aware, riddled with tension—refuse to rationalize death by countenancing the rebirth of the dead in nature, divinity, the nation, or even poetry itself. To effect the substitutions and consolations traditional in the elegiac genre would be to impose sense on the senselessness of these mass deaths, giving them a purpose that might seem to make them worthwhile. As we try to devise poetic and monumental forms adequate both to an anti-compensatory ethics of mourning and to our collective grief for those killed in the September 11 attacks, we would do well to remember the examples of the unflinchingly anti-consolatory elegies of the last century.