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How Poetry Can Help With the Grieving Process

How Poetry Can Help With the Grieving Process

An unfortunate myth has captured the minds of many modern people: Poetry is inaccessible and irrelevant. I hear complaints to this effect from my students, sometimes, or read them in the comments sections of my articles. And I understand the sentiment. If you’ve never been exposed to classic poems with the guidance of a good teacher, then the whole business does appear esoteric, elitist, and, well, dull.

We live in an unpoetic society. We are experiencing the fruits of several generations of Americans who have not been taught to appreciate or understand poetry, which was once a popular pursuit.

One source for this myth of the irrelevancy of poetry is the fact that much modern free-verse poetry has become so experimental as to be inaccessible and irrelevant, detached from reality. Students who were exposed to “poems” in the postmodern milieu have a right to consider poetry out of touch and uninteresting.

But when we look at real poetry, the classic works that have been handed on from father to son, mother to daughter, for centuries, the works that capture something of the universal human experience as light is captured and concentrated by a prism—poems that bewitch with their beauty and tantalize with their truth—we find something quite different, something far from dull, and, I propose, far from impractical.

I have yet to encounter a reader of poetry who is not human. Which means that there is no reader of poetry who cannot benefit in a very practical way from reading verse, since true poetry explores what it means to be human. In the words of literature professor John Senior, “No matter what our expertise, no matter what we are by vocation or trade, we are all lovers; and while only experts in each field must know mathematics and the sciences and other arts, everyone must be a poet.”

Poetry is the language of love, and to be fully human is to love. So poetry belongs to us all. What can be more practical than an intellectual, emotional, and moral formation in how to be a human being, that is, how to live and love well?

Take, for example, the process of grieving. Who among us has not lost someone we loved? Who among us has not felt on our skin a breeze blown from eternity, an encounter with the mystery of death? The great poets of our language have given expression to that experience in a way that can help us to process our own grief and even, perhaps, to understand something of the meaning of our suffering, of that journey our beloved has made into “the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.”

By expressing the essence of the universal reality of grieving and something of its meaning, poets enter into solidarity with us, and their golden tears may even help us to come to a place of acceptance of our own tears. We might be able to see a world of meaning reflected in those drops of liquid agony.

As Shakespeare scholar Gideon Rappaport has put it, poetry puts into words what cannot be put into words—even such a colossal force as grief. Finding words for complex emotional experiences is like hoisting the sails of your soul and capturing the wild wind. It becomes possible to move forward. There is emotional release. Aristotle called it “catharsis” in his Poetics. Thus art becomes a balm, a healing oil, poured into our wounds, those empty places inside us left behind by those we see no more.

Let me provide some concrete examples of poems that explore grief and that I have found consoling during times of loss. The first comes from The Bard, Shakespeare himself.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,

And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.

In this sonnet, the poet gives vent to his mourning over so many disappointments, sufferings, and losses over the course of his life. The assonance of the repeated “oh” vowel sound creates an atmosphere of moaning and weeping. We can probably relate to the flood of emotions that can come in quiet moments when we remember “vanish’d sights” and “precious friends hid in death’s dateless [endless] night.”

But in the final two lines of the sonnet (known as “the turn” or “volta”), something suddenly shifts, and the poet ends on a note of hope, recalling that, though much has been lost, much remains. He reminds us that loss is not a call to anger, but a call to a deeper gratitude for all that we have, such as the face of a dear friend or spouse, whose love is enough to restore “all losses.”

A contemporary and friend of Shakespeare’s, Ben Jonson, also chose not to turn to despair but rather to acceptance in his poetic thoughts on loss in “On My First Son.” The poem was written after his son, on the child’s seventh birthday, passed away.

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.

Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

O, could I lose all father now! For why

Will man lament the state he should envy?

To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,

And if no other misery, yet age?

Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie

Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”

For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,

As what he loves may never like too much.

The conflicted feelings and thoughts of the grieving father provide much of the poem’s tension, giving it life and authenticity. The father wonders if he did something wrong, had “too much hope of thee,” his dead son, resulting in the boy’s removal from him. But he frames his fatherhood, humbly enough, as a kind of stewardship—“tho’ [you] wert lent to me.” He recognizes what an undeserved gift his son was, for each of those seven years, given him “on loan.”

With the opening “O,” Jonson gives voice to his sorrow, even wishing, momentarily, that he could “lose all father[hood] now.” But he immediately follows this with a reflection on the fact that perhaps his son’s fate was for the best, even enviable, since his son will suffer no more, will avoid the pains of the world, of unruly flesh, and of old age. For all the anguish, there is a note of hope and acceptance here.

Toward the end of the poem, Jonson affirms the inexpressible value of a human life, whether long or short, calling his son his “best piece of poetry.” Indeed, there can be no greater work of beauty, of art, than a human soul. And each story of each soul has the potential to be a beautiful poem—whether it be long or short.

Shakespeare and Jonson knew that, in the end, relationships with others are worth it, even when they do end in loss. To live a full human life is to suffer loss. But it’s worth it. It’s all worth it. We might summarize the poets’ attitude toward loss in the words of another great poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in another poem memorializing the dead, “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” which Tennyson wrote for his deceased friend Arthur Hallam:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;

I feel it, when I sorrow most;

‘Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

Image credit: Public domain

Walker Larson
Walker Larson

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  • Avatar
    N Haug
    April 23, 2024, 8:43 pm

    Good essay. More please.

  • Avatar
    April 27, 2024, 5:18 pm




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