You’ll Need Me When They’re Gone: The Poems We Reach For in Grief

I began composing the work that would eventually become Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral in 2010, and when I read these new poems publicly a strange thing occurred. Whereas at previous readings my work mostly elicited the generic I-Liked-That-One-Poem-About-X reaction from polite listeners, audience members now came up after and began confessing their own difficulties with death and grief. A woman in Vermont broke down crying while she discussed the loss of her husband. In a San Antonio poetry bar, a middle-aged man stared down into his Lone Star can and spoke to me about his mother’s suicide.

While this was not what I expected, I am all too aware of the place contemporary poetry occupies for most people: They reach for poems when they’re in love or when they’re coping with death. By writing through my own grief, I’d inadvertently touched upon a topic that people seemed eager to discuss aloud. As I’ve continued to read from this book, I’m always struck by the taboo nature of this subject. And to be clear, the subject isn’t death itself, but how those of us left behind seem unable to engage with our grief in a public way. There simply doesn’t appear to be a space for this engagement outside a psychiatrist’s office.

Poetry therapists and other psychiatric scholars have been studying the effects of poetry on trauma for some time now. In Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval, James Pennebaker discusses the clinical benefits of writing through grief. The findings include grief writing’s beneficial effects on the immune system, as well as reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension levels. Similarly, studies have shown ingesting art or music that matches the depth of your loss can also provide rewards. A 2014 study that appeared on PLOS’s (Public Library of Science’s) online journal ONE posits that there are four main reasons why people listen to sad music when they’re sad: It activates the imagination, regulates emotion, provides empathy, and releases the listener from causal implication. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that poetry often provides these same benefits for bereaved readers.

Put more simply, poems about grief offer us language at times when we can’t come up with our own. This occurs on all levels of catastrophe. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, poems were tacked to billboards and buildings in the vicinity of Ground Zero, and impromptu memorials containing poetry popped up on the subways, bus stops, construction boarding, and other public areas of the city. As New Yorkers ambled the streets in the aftermath, they found poetry everywhere, written in an attempt to give form and voice to the immensity of a tragedy that had unvoiced so many. Nearly all this poetry was written by loved ones in memoriam to their lost family, friends, and spouses; I point this out only to highlight how the voices of poets, all combined, defined the scope of the attacks on an individual level first. Each poem about grief speaks to a single loss which, set against the shared experience of loss, has far-reaching impacts on readers.

The most famous poems about grief find their way into mainstream culture, in movies or TV shows or works of popular prose. Rather than this phenomenon marking these poems as, perhaps, “easy” or “basic,” I view such inclusions of poetry as proof of grieving’s difficulty. Even gifted screen and teleplay writers can’t come up with better language for coping with death, and instead of writing their own poems for the death scene, they rely on poets to convey to audiences how their characters are feeling. I take this as both a compliment to the difficulty of writing good poems and as a somewhat problematic comment on the austerity of poetry (as in, “poems are only good for solemn occasions,” which is complete and total bullshit of the highest magnitude; see Etheridge Knight’s “Feeling Fucked Up” as a good example of poetry’s apathy toward notions of purist solemnity).

In light of these recent revelations and occurrences surrounding my own poetry, I began looking back through some of the most well-known grief poems that informed my work and the works of others. And as I did research into some of these poems, I found that many had interesting or—in certain cases—heartbreaking provenances surrounding their making.

I’ve included a few lines from each poem, just as a refresher for any reader who needs a reminder. And, for my purposes here, please keep in mind that I’m using the term “grief” loosely. Some of the poems hold the tenor of grief more than the subject matter. But, as is the case for so much of poetry, conveying the feeling is usually more important than getting the facts precisely accurate. These are simply some poems that informed my learning to write about my own grief. 

1.“Funeral Blues,” W. H. Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

I know. But what list of grief writing would be complete without the reigning granddaddy of popular funeral poems? This one famously appears in the 1994 British film Four Weddings and a Funeral, and since then has taken on a life of its own. And while the character in the movie speaks the lines with sincere gravitas, one of the more famous poetry anecdotes is that this poem began as an ironic take on a politician’s passing. In a satirical play co-authored by Auden and Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of F6, the elegy is actually sung by a pair of political lackeys at the funeral of a protagonist, Sir James, whose murder atop the fictitious F6 peak has become a transnational bargaining chip. In this setting, the feelings it evokes are the polar opposite of its contemporary use. Sir James, a colonial magistrate of some kind, asks his mountaineer brother, Michael, to accompany him and scale the border-straddling mountain to plant a flag in its summit for the pride of Britain. When they reach the top, Michael murders James before dying of exhaustion himself. The national pride evinced by James’s death is summed up by the song, and in the play its use reeks of unrealized catharsis and political hubris. The last stanza of the original poem concludes with instructions for burial:

And Gunn, of course, will drive the motor-hearse:
None could drive it better, most would drive it worse.
He’ll open up the throttle to its fullest power
And drive him to the grave at ninety miles an hour.

Later, Auden changed the poem’s last three stanzas when he decided to use it as an earnest elegy to a friend and singer he’d admired, Hedli Anderson. After the edited version’s appearance in Auden’s 1940 book Another Time, the poem’s ironical genesis was largely washed away. Today, the poem is routinely recited or sung at funerals.

2.“Annabel Lee,” Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
     In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
     By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
     Than to love and be loved by me.

What people often overlook about Poe’s poetry is that almost all of it contained some component of love or grief. “The Raven,” is, indeed, a grief poem as well, with the perpetually frustrated narrator lamenting the passing of his beloved “Lenore.” Another thing people forget about Poe is that, when he wasn’t wracked by melancholy or (possibly) alcoholism, he was an egomaniac. After completing “The Raven,” he quickly proclaimed it “the greatest poem ever written,” and carried a copy of it in his pocket to read at any bar or gathering where the crowd seemed amenable. Conversely, “Annabel Lee” was composed as a dirge for his cousin-wife, Virginia. The couple lived with Virginia’s mother near New York City, in an airy cottage he hoped would help cure her consumption. They were so poor that, as Virginia wasted away, neighbors brought the family food, fuel for heat, and even gave them the feather bed that Poe’s wife would die on, in 1847. Seven months prior to his own death, Poe completed “Annabel Lee” while starved, half-insane, and overcome with the perpetual grief that came to define his life.

3.“When I am Dead, My Dearest,” Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
    Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
    Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
     With showers and dewdrops wet:
And if thou wilt, remember,
    And if thou wilt, forget.

Rossetti’s religious fervor was bisected by her brittle, lovelorn longing for meaning on earth. Home-schooled, artistically talented, Rossetti led a cloistered life with her notoriously Grey Gardens-ish family in London. At the age of 17, she fell in love with a Roman Catholic man who, at first, resolved to convert to her beloved Anglicanism. Then, after coming to terms with how the Church of England was, let’s say, problematic, he un-converted. For the remainder of her life, Rossetti was haunted by the conflict between her religion and her desire. One day, when she saw her former Roman Catholic suitor on a London street, she fainted from lovesickness. “When I am Dead, My Dearest,” is a strange poem in that it was written just before her relationship ended, but it displays the logics of fatal grief from depression. Rather than consider moving forward with her life, Rossetti posits her own death and how forgettable she should be in the scheme of Christian redemption. The poem’s meaning, taken through the lens of how her faith reinforced her romantic solitude, breaks my heart. It feels as though she’s trying to convince herself that heaven is all the reward she’ll need, even as her mortal body cries out for human contact.

4.“After Your Death,” Natasha Trethewey

First, I emptied the closets of your clothes,
threw out the bowl of fruit, bruised
from your touch, left empty the jars

you bought for preserves. […]
I came upon this poem at just the right time in my grieving. Trethewey’s use of the “stuff” that remains after losing a loved one is important in that it represents an entry point into the thinking the survivor does. Every object becomes a reminder when you have to clear out their house or pack up their things. The backstory here is also a tragic one. After years of domestic abuse, the poet’s mother finally left her second husband, Trethewey’s stepfather. Shortly after their divorce, Trethewey’s stepfather shot her mother in the head at close range, killing her instantly. It’s this remembrance of her mother in the things she touches that makes “After Your Death” a poignant revelation. The poem ends on a hopeful note: “I’m too late, / again, another space emptied by loss. / Tomorrow, the bowl I have yet to fill.”

“What the Living Do,” Marie Howe

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

I came to understand that one technique the poetry of grief employs is jarring disjunction. The lucid moments between the hectic ones are where the grief recharges; the aggrieved person fumbles through their life, which is now a secondary life devoid of the person they’ve lost. If you’re dealing with grief this heavy, it begins to feel like you can actually watch yourself living amid the daily reality that someone else is not. In Howe’s case, her brother passed in 1989 due to complications related to AIDS. This is an outstanding poem for both its wild, associative leaps and the intimate tone, which resembles a letter to the deceased. The departed “you” is on prominent display here, too, as it is in many of the grief poems I came to admire.

“Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh,” Thomas James

I remember how I died. It was so simple!
One morning the garden faded. My face blacked out.
On my left side they made the first incision.
They washed my heart and liver in palm wine—
My lungs were two dark fruit they stuffed with spices.
They smeared my innards with a sticky unguent
And sealed them in a crock of alabaster.

If there is one relatively unknown poet whose work I recommend above all others, it is Thomas James. Poets who find him hold him closely; I was gifted a first edition of Letters to a Stranger, his only book, a few years ago, and I can’t bring myself to expose it to open air, let alone remove it from its plastic case to read it. James is Plath’s direct poetic descendent. He, too, died at the age of 27, though the circumstances surrounding his death are very strange (pronounced a suicide, the gunshot wound to his temple was on the left side of his head, despite his being right-handed). Many of the poems in Letters aren’t grief poems in the traditional sense, but James wrote a number of poems from the point of view of the dead. “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh” is one such piece, and its violent, detailed description of the mummification process works as a counterpoint to the persona of the girl who, as a result of this procedure, feels “important” and “a precious object.” James is a haunting poet whose voice feels the very embodiment of grief at the human condition. His parents died within 10 days of each other in 1972; indeed, his entire family (save a sister) was gone. Whereas Plath’s voice skews toward the stormy and ironic, James tends to ruminate on thanatopsis and the impossibility of human joy after accepting our mortality. Letters to a Stranger went out of print shortly after its publication in 1973. For years, it existed solely in photocopied editions exchanged in secret among grad students and excited young poets. It was finally republished in 2008.

Other important poems for me include but are by no means limited to:

“Hospital,” by Jason Shinder

“A Great Beauty,” by Cyrus Cassells

“In the Surgical Theatre,” by Dana Levin

“Dead Wren,” by Henri Cole

“Poem to My Litter,” by Max Ritvo

“Making Love to Myself,” by James L. White

“His Stillness,” by Sharon Olds

“Song,” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

“Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” by Amiri Baraka

“in a middle of a room,” by E. E. Cummings

Image: Chris Liu

We Need to Talk About the Canon: Demographics in ‘The Norton Anthology’

In the last 20 years or so, the discussion of diversity in the American literary canon has exploded, garnering space in mainstream media outlets. A wide array of magazines, journals, and websites have tackled the issue. A 2013 New Yorker article titled “Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics” details the prickly and vague assumptions with which experts attempt to define canonical works. Other articles aim to deconstruct or expound upon the problem, often with similarly severe titles: “What is Literature?: In Defense of the Canon” (Harper’s, 2014); “The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest” (Jezebel, 2012); “Reconstructing the Canon” (Harvard Political Review, 2018), “The Canon Is Sexist, Racist, Colonialist, and Totally Gross. Yes, You Have to Read It Anyway” (Slate, 2018).

The majority of literary Americans—readers, writers, editors, publishers, professors, reviewers, and so on—are now all too aware of the serious problems surrounding literary inclusivity and representation. As a result, recent years have seen an uptick the publication and recognition of writers of more diverse backgrounds. This positive gain is due, in part, to an expanding network of organizations that support diversification, including VIDA, Lambda Literary, Cave Canem, Kundiman, and others.

But as yet, there has been very little hard data from which to discuss the extent of mis- or underrepresentation. Understandably so: such an undertaking would require a massive investment of time and resources. One manageable place to start, though, is to examine the textbook anthologies we offer American students. Indeed, these anthologies are often meant as snapshots of the canon, given to high-schoolers and undergraduates in literature survey courses nationwide. The most well-known of these is probably The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

The Norton Anthology has been a fixture in American classrooms since its introduction in 1979. This series is curated by a rotating assembly of editors, with new editions published every four to six years. W. W. Norton guards their sales figures and course adoption statistics closely, but, as of 2016, they claimed that roughly 12 million students have used The Norton Anthology of American Literature during its lifetime. It’s unclear if this figure includes resales of used books at college bookstores or reused editions in high school classrooms. Even so, this means about 4 million students per decade have used the anthology (or about 400,000 a year), on average.

This anthology series has had a foundational impact on defining what many readers and scholars would identify as an “American canon.” It follows that a demographic analysis of these books would—at the very least—yield a starting point for a more quantitative, statistical analysis of representation in the The Norton Anthology and the canon. And, like a selfie, this picture is not only a reflection of ourselves and our literary output, but a memento of who we are at this particular moment in time.

I conducted this study not for any prescriptive means, nor as any sort of definitive yardstick on the condition of American letters. At most, the findings listed here may be viewed as a measure of currently accepted levels of representation in anthologies. The central impetus for this examination was simply to contribute a data set that offers a snapshot of one version of the American canon (the version most familiar to students and teachers of literature in American high school and university classrooms).

This snapshot concentrates on the 194 writers in three books of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Ninth Edition, volumes C, D, and E (“1865 to the Present”), published in 2017. This study excludes volumes A and B (“Beginnings to 1865”). The selection of writings included in these first volumes is limited due to the oppression and erasure enacted upon minorities in antebellum America. These early books consist mainly of unattributed oral literatures, religious tracts, letters, and memoir-narratives. Simply stated, a demographic analysis of the first two books of The Norton Anthology would be largely moot; they define the underrepresentation the study seeks to explore in the anthology’s later volumes.

A final note before presenting the data: There’s a saddening byproduct to spending a significant amount of time coding and simplifying each writer down to his or her demographic information. Writers are notoriously complex people, and they frequently make very concerted efforts to subvert easy categorization. At a certain point, I began to feel as though I was doing an injustice and, indeed, a violence to the legacy of many writers. Demographic data flattens and dehumanizes its subjects in a very uncomfortable way, and I apologize to all writers and readers for reducing people who, by their very nature, are irreducible. This study was undertaken in good faith and under the auspices of exploration and learning. I welcome disagreement, discourse, and correction, particularly from experts on demographic studies and on the identities of writers contained in The Norton Anthology.

What follows are data visualizations of information compiled from biographical and critical research. The data gets much more complex and difficult to parse at its deeper, more intersectional levels, though I plan to continue with and add to this work (and welcome others to do the same). I hope these summaries provide a starting point to further statistical analyses of representation in American literature and that this information is helpful to anyone interested in our current and future trajectory toward literary diversity.

Norton provides a full table of contents of these editions online, available for perusal here.