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Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

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? We may realize, from personal experience, that poetry cannot heal grief, but can it be of any use as a public statement?

As a response to the Nazi atrocities, poetry seemed, to German philosopher Theodor Adorno, impossible. To Adorno, writing verse was a barbaric response to an event that threatened the very existence of culture. It is true that it took years, even decades, for some writers who had passed through the camps to write about their experience, and many of the poems they wrote are of testimonial rather than literary interest. But there were poets who wrote memorably about the Holocaust, among them Paul Celan, Dan Pagis, Nelly Sachs, and Jaroslav Seifert. What their poems have in common is the desire to relate the personal experience of horrors that they witnessed to a universal literary and religious tradition.

The Romanian-born Israeli poet Dan Pagis, who escaped from a camp in the Ukraine in 1944, tried to avoid the subject of the Holocaust in his early poems, but addressed it directly in his 1970 collection Transformations. In his famous poem “Scrawled in pencil in a sealed railway car,” he relates the experience, referenced only in the poem’s title and the single word “transport,” to an evil as old as human history:

here in this transport
i eve
and abel my son
if you should see my older son
cain son of man
tell him that i

By juxtaposing the evil of the Holocaust with a Biblical and ancient one, Pagis is able to say what he needs to in just 25 words (19 in Hebrew). The poem offers no consolation, not even the comfort of turning the perpetrators of evil into monsters. Eve’s innocent son is doomed with her in the railway car, but Cain, his murderous brother, is also the object of Eve’s final thoughts. Evil, the biblical reference suggests, is part of the Lord’s plan, as is the helpless love of a mother for her children, movingly suggested in the final, trailing line of the poem. In its bleak refusal of relief, the poem resembles the traditional laments for the dead that have been an indispensable part of the rituals of mourning throughout history and across cultures.

We find literary versions of lament in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in the Bible, in the last chapter of the Iliad, and in the choruses of Greek tragedy. They were no doubt modeled on the laments still sung in preindustrial societies. The connection is made explicit in Gilgamesh when the hero laments his friend with the words “I weep for Enkidu, my friend / bitterly moaning like a woman mourning . . . and the young men your brothers / as though they were women / go long-haired in mourning” (Gilgamesh, “The Death of Enkidu”). The Iliad ends not with a victory song but with the three women who loved Hector lamenting him, while the narrator of the Book of Lamentations blames the Lord for his lack of mercy: “The young and the old lie on the ground in the streets: my virgins and my old men are fallen by the sword; thou has slain them in the day of thine anger; thou has killed and not pitied.” (Lamentations 2)

Traditional mourning songs, most of them composed by women, have much in common with those in the classics, and none of them have much to do with consolation. If I were to say in a word what the poetry of lament does, I would say it provokes. In some societies, such as those of the headhunters of New Guinea, it provokes revenge; in the Venezuelan jungle, it gives women an opportunity to vilify their enemies; in Greece, it provokes the Orthodox Church; and in rural Ireland, where laments were sung until the last century, it provokes the authorities. One example is enough to see why:

Death is black, his clothes are black, black the horse he rides;
And black are the hounds he leads, the deer-hunting dogs of Death.
He drags young people by the hair, old ones by their beards;
He drags the little children lined up across his saddle.
                         —Fauriel, translated by the author

The contradiction between Christian teaching and the rhetoric of the laments is striking. The iconography of the Greek folk laments is almost exclusively pagan, with the dead being dragged to the underworld by Charon, or Death, most frequently personified as a merciless rider on a black horse. Paradise and resurrection are rarely mentioned; nor is the word “God.” Instead, the grave is a place of bleak finality. Laments may not console, but in cultures that still practice them they are regarded as highly desirable, both for the community and for the women who perform them. As one Greek lament-singer admits: “I’d rather lament than eat or drink” (Passayiannis). The worst thing that could happen to you in ancient Greece was to die “unburied and unwept.” To be wept over was not only to have your immediate family shed tears, but to be the subject of a formal poem, sung by a woman skilled in the art of composing and performing such songs. The skilled lament-singer is a sort of Method actor whose job is to whip up the crowd at the funeral with her bitter, provocative songs. The women don’t pretend their songs are therapeutic. As another modern Greek lament reminds us,

Laments are words, the embittered speak them;
They try to drive away the evil, but it doesn’t come out.
                 —Fauriel, translated by the author

Laments for the dead are passionate but not chaotic or even spontaneous. The lamenting voice arouses and artfully directs passion. Depending on the social context, such an art can have dangerous effects. Throughout European history, we find attempts to stamp out the practice of women lamenting the dead: in Solon’s laws passed in Athens in the 6th century B.C.; in the writings of early church fathers; in the edicts of the medieval Hungarian church; and in the memos of exasperated 19th-century Irish bishops. Why was this art so threatening? Because lament-singers had the ability to stir strong passions, sentiments that could spill over into the streets and start a riot or overthrow a regime.

In recent times, governments, churches, the funeral industry, the builders of monuments, profession grief-healers, and poets of consolation have all had a hand in damping down the rage of grief. Octavio Paz knew something when he said that the word “death” is not pronounced in our modern society because it burns the lips.

Today, most people are likely to encounter poems only at weddings, graduations, or funerals, when poetry suddenly acquires a ceremonial function. We cast around for something profound to mark these events, and tend to choose poetry rather than prose. Such an impulse must lie behind the decision to flash poetry at us at the memorial to those who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

But which poets are up to such a task? This is a monument to the victims of an act beyond most people’s imagination. Consolation, that stuffy, Victorian-sounding word, seems an insult to the victims’ memory. What is needed is its antithesis: poetry that can provoke us, poetry capable of confronting the fanatical belief that toppled the Twin Towers without substituting another for it. If there is a poet who can speak of death as unsentimentally as lament-singers do, or as a handful of modern poets have done, let us read her or his words at Ground Zero. If not, the words on walls will be empty verbiage.

  • Gail Holst-Warhaft has worked as a journalist, broadcaster, writer, and academic. In the 1970s, while carrying out research for two books about Greek music, she performed as a keyboard-player with Greece’s leading composers, including Mikis Theodorakis. She is an adjunct professor in at Cornell University where she directs a program...


Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?

  • Gail Holst-Warhaft has worked as a journalist, broadcaster, writer, and academic. In the 1970s, while carrying out research for two books about Greek music, she performed as a keyboard-player with Greece’s leading composers, including Mikis Theodorakis. She is an adjunct professor in at Cornell University where she directs a program...

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