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After Loss, Turning To Poetry For Grief And Healing


After the sudden death of his father, the poet Kevin Young looked for a collection of poems that might speak to his sense of loss. To his surprise, he couldn't find such a collection, so he went to work compiling one. The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, Young's anthology, came out earlier this year.

Early in the collection, Young includes a poem, "Funeral Blues" by W.H. Auden, that was read at his father's service. It begins:

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

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.

It's that ability -- to express a feeling like the one that arrives quickly after the loss of a loved one -- that poems like Auden's wield.

"I think that's a real part of grief that we sometimes aren't able to talk about and I think that poetry talks about perhaps better than anything else," Young tells NPR's Renee Montange. "It's able capture a moment, a feeling, perhaps a fleeting feeling, and even make -- as that poem does -- music out of it."

In a few lines -- maybe just a few words -- some poems contain feelings that can overwhelm those who have suffered a loss. Stephen Dobyn's poem "Grief" employs a simple metaphor in its opening stanza:

Trying to remember you is like carrying water in my hands a long distance across sand. Somewhere people are waiting. They have drunk nothing for days.

Young says the best poems are "precise about a feeling. A poem can be both blunt -- it can say it straight out -- it also can say, 'Stop all the clocks,' 'Do not go gentle into that good night.' It can plead in a way that we may wish, but we are not able to. And I think that that ability -- to be direct and say it full out, but also make music out of it, make metaphor, make meaning -- is really what a poem does best."

As grief comes in many forms, so do the poems in The Art of Losing, which takes its title from the Elizabeth Bishop poem "One Art" ("The art of losing isn't hard to master ... "). Young includes poems on subjects from the unexpected -- like David Wojahn's "Written on the Due Date of a Son Never Born" -- to careful preparation, as in Hal Sirowitz's "Remember Me":

Every weekend your mother & I tour cemetery plots, Father said, the way most people visit model homes. We have different tastes. I like jutting hills overlooking traffic, whereas she prefers a bed of flowers. She desires a plot away from traffic noise. I let her have her way in death to avoid a life of Hell.

Near the end of the collection, Young begins a section on redemption with "The Trees" by Philip Larkin, which points out not only that, while they seem to be reborn each year, trees eventually will die ("their yearly trick of looking new / Is written down in rings of grain"), but also that "their greenness is a kind of grief":

Yet still the unresting castles thresh In fullgrown thickness every May. Last year is dead, they seem to say, Begin afresh, afresh, afresh


That burst of hope, Young says, is "one of the feelings that these poems capture. That movement is part of the journey of grief and healing."

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