Does poetry help mourners confront loss and overcome sorrow? Is a poetics of public grief also political? Noted poet and critic Sandra Gilbert moderates a panel of poets and thinkers about the role of poetry in public mourning.
Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?
BY SANDRA GILBERT
From the First World War to the Holocaust and on through Vietnam and the Rwandan genocide to the invasion of Iraq, the last century has been marked by what the religious studies scholar Edith Wyschogrod has chillingly defined as “death events”—massacres “in which scale is reckoned in terms of the compression of time” (that is, the efficiency) with which “destruction is delivered,” making the last hundred years, as another scholar notes, “the bloodiest in human history.” In an era and a culture with few agreed-upon customs for mourning, still fewer common spiritual belief systems, and almost no conventions for the articulation of public sorrow, with what strategies can poets respond to so many overwhelming occasions of collective loss?
The Poetics of Public Grief: An Epilogue to the Forum by Sandra Gilbert
Years ago my father saw the keen, or caoine. It was the 1920s; he was a student at Trinity College. On a trip one Easter, he went a hundred miles west and a whole century back to Connemara and the Atlantic coast of Ireland. . . .
Last night I attended a poetry reading at the local university where I teach in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As I settled into my seat in a back row of the air-conditioned auditorium, I prepared myself to be set free. It had been a tough week in my medical life. . . .
Here’s the Szymborska poem that will not be included in the stream of text in Jenny Holzer’s installation at 7 World Trade Center. . . .
In her essay, Sandra Gilbert quotes Wilfred Owen’s preface to his posthumously published collection of World War I poetry: “These elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory.” It is important to recall the next sentence: “They may be to the next.”. . .
All elegy is public mourning, unless the poem or essay remains in the writer’s notebook, unpublished. All elegy makes temporary public figures of both the writer and the subject. . . .
Can poetry mourn collectively? Can poetry speak the grief of multitudes powerfully and simply enough to be heard by the multitudes for which it speaks? I am interested in a more precise question, for reasons I hope will be clear. . . .
Sandra Gilbert’s questions about grief, poetry, and public memorials are, like all good questions, provocative. Could poetry, streaming across the glass wall of a monument to the victims of 9/11, offer us consolation? Is consolation what we seek in a memorial to mass murder? . . .
“All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” So writes Robert Hass in “Meditation at Lagunitas,” and so suggest countless recent elegies, poems that reinvigorate the ancient tradition of poetic mourning for the dead, even as they dissent from its consolations and idealizations. . . .
Continuing a long tradition that began with Mrs. Trollope and Charles Dickens, some English writers at mid-20th century thought they had aptly portrayed American absurdities, and nowhere did we seem more unworthy than in the way we buried ourselves. . . .