Poetry, Loss, and Grieving: A Guest Blogger Perspective

by Guest Blogger Carla  McGill

A few years ago, I saw Billy Collins (Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 – 2003) read his poems at a local university. I have read his poetry for many years, usually bringing out one or two from his many collections to read to dinner guests during an after-dinner drink. My second time seeing him read live, I knew enough to expect a few comedic moments, something I enjoy about his public presentations. This time, though, he spoke about death and loss, the major focus of much poetry. To emphasize his point he remarked that the classic anthology used in most universities, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which typically contains between 1500 – 1700 poems in the regular editions, could be called The Norton Pamphlet of Poetry if we removed all of the poems that were about death and loss.

Quite a difference between The Norton Anthology of Poetry and a pamphlet

Quite a difference between The Norton Anthology of Poetry and a pamphlet

His words resonated with me, since I had written an elegy for my father, who died in 2009, and four years later, an elegy for my aunt who died on Thanksgiving Day of 2013, as well as other poems that elucidate the experience of profound loss. My first impulse, when trying to memorialize them both was to write poems that in some way illuminated and crystallized my memories of them. There are thousands of poems about nature, love, and joy, but why are so many more of them about loss? What is it about poetry that makes it an excellent configuration for deeply painful experiences?

Poetry does seem to offer us ways to envision our experiences from various and unusual perspectives. Poetry can allow us to express profound thoughts, philosophical musings, and significant moments in time. Other expressions can do something similar, such as photography, painting, and sculpture, but poetry involves language, and language is tied to our humanity in a specific way. We have things we want to express with words. Emotions, ideas, perspectives. The public persona is unseated by the poetic voice as it utters deeper feelings, sharper and more distinct images, more acute insights. It has been said by many that poetry reflects the unconscious and the world of dreams. When I write a poem, I do encounter new dispositions, surprising mental vistas, and sometimes emotional resolutions to inner dilemmas. When I read an engaging poem, I find myself enriched, as if I have been with an encouraging friend or a spiritual mentor. The pain of grieving seems particularly difficult to articulate, and yet its poetic expression can yield a kind of peace, a sense of having located a central inner place, a core level of being and feeling.

The anguish of loss is inevitable. Our loved ones die, our happy moments fade, and we age. As Mark Twain said, “When you’re born, you’re finished.” Perhaps poetry best expresses our feelings of loss because it provides a certain amount of delight even if the topic is unpleasant or disturbing. The sound devices that poets use, the rhyme or meter, and the imagery all provide sensual and psychological gratification. More importantly, the great body of poetry about death and loss tells us that we are all on the journey together.

Roland Barthes said much the same about photography in his book Camera Lucida. He mentions that all photographs retain a certain feeling of melancholy because the subjects of the photograph have been in a specific place at a specific time, and yet they are no longer in that place and time. Therefore, loss is at the heart of photography, and in some ways, it is also at the heart of poetry, which tries to express moments, singularities, epiphanies.

Poetry presents delightful and rewarding experiences, even while it expresses the worst that we can endure as human beings. What a gift it is.


I  earned my BA in English from California State University, San Bernardino, and my MA and PhD from the University of California, Riverside. My writing has been published in A Clean Well-Lighted Place, Westerners Journal, and Inland Empire Magazine. As a member of the Live Poets’ Society from 1991–2012 at The Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, my poems have appeared in three of my group’s chapbooks: Garden Lyrics, Huntington Lyrics, and California Lyrics.

Though I have occasionally done freelance work for a local magazine, I mainly write poetry and short stories, and I am working on my first novel.



Filed under Books, Essay, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Writing

45 responses to “Poetry, Loss, and Grieving: A Guest Blogger Perspective

  1. Thank you for this lovely essay, Carla, and thank you, Luanne, for hosting Carla. I rarely write poetry, but when I do it’s usually because I’m moved by some sad, inarticulate feelings. Maybe it’s the need for an outlet. Everyone is willing to listen when you’re happy, when you want to share joy or good news, but I find few people want to hear sad news or share in dark feelings. Poetry then is an outlet for me, a way to communicate those feelings first with myself alone.

    • Marie, what a good point. There is something so personal about the dark feelings, feelings we are not welcome to share with others, that seems to require poetry. I was really blown away by what Carla shared about Billy Collins and the Norton Anthology. Wow. To think that most poetry is about loss. I really didn’t realize that, but now I see it so clearly.

    • I agree, and what a beautiful article. I am involved with an active community of poets who post their work through small, square photos on the social media network Instagram. There must be hundreds, if not thousands of people getting their words out to the public this way. And the content is overwhelmingly based on personal confessions and narratives of personal loss. It is at once fascinating, inspiring and profoundly poignant.

      • The Instagram project sounds like such a lovely idea. I had no idea there was anything like that available on that social media site. How fascinating that poetry is so connected with, as you say, “personal loss.” Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing about this wonderful community!

  2. Although I don’t write poetry, I enjoyed your insight, Carla. It was very interesting. Good luck on your first novel. Thanks for introducing us to Carla, Luanne.

    • Jill, Carla is a dear. She and I were office mates 24 years ago when we were teaching assistants at the university. I can’t wait to read her novel!

  3. Most of my poetry was written during troubled times. I believe I used the gift of writing to work those those painful moments in my history. Thank you for your insights and thank you Luanne for having Carla on your blog.

    • SK, I didn’t really “get” that until my cousin died unexpectedly and all of a sudden I wrote poem after poem after poem. But I really didn’t understand that most poetry is about loss until reading this from Carla!

  4. Thanks for your insight, Carla. I’ve recently discovered Billy Collins and his poetry resonates with me.

  5. Thanks for this beautiful blog, Carla. It helps me understand the place poetry comes from.

  6. Thanks Carla for your post, very insightful indeed and I can relate to it. My dad used to describe poetry as the last mystery and beauty of our world, and I guess he was right. Thanks Luanne for hosting Carla on your blog! Enjoy the rest of your week ladies! 🙂

  7. My husband found Billy Collins on a Ted Talk a few months back and I’ve been reading his poetry ever since. What a treat he is. Such accessible language and of course I love his humour. Thanks to your former office mate for such an eloquent essay.

    • S, how neat that he found him on a Ted Talk. I’ll have to look for it. You have really summed up his work so well: “such accessible language and . . . his humour.” So true!!! And so glad you love him!

  8. Thank you for this lovely introduction to Carla, Luanne. I know when I start writing poetry that I am at the lowest of the low and this is when I am at the peak of my creativity. It’s wonderful to have an outlet and poetry is certainly that xxxx

    • You’re welcome :). That makes a lot of sense to me. I remember when my cousin (who I was close to) unexpectedly died, I started writing poetry again and kept on writing a lot for several months.

  9. Carla McGill

    Just reading these comments now on Thanksgiving Day as I sit here with my mom at my brother’s house along with the rest of our family. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful and kind remarks! A Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

  10. I was deeply moved by Carla’s writing about death, dying and loss. I felt this subject resonated with me since I ‘enjoy’ reading poetry about these subjects. Maybe it is due to what Carla pointed out, the person has such deep emotions they express it beautifully. It is a subject most people can relate to, since we have all lost someone in our life. I also felt the idea of reading to guests over drinks at the end of a meal, would be so wonderful. I can picture this in years gone by, but have not experienced this in my own life. I like to hear poetry read aloud, which my mother and father read to us, along with teachers and professors. I carried this out in my own child-rearing years. Not on the subject of death, per se, but poetry that tells a tribute or gives a deeper level to children’s lives. Those were often in Children’s Anthologies.
    I knew of Billy Collins and have read some of his poems. I did not know that he had a sense of humor, which was so interesting to find this out from Carla.
    Luanne, thank you very much for this guest post, it was very interesting.
    Carla, thank you for sharing your thoughts and helping me to understand why I like to read poems filled with pathos!

    • I will let Carla know you wrote here.

    • Thank you for these comments! Recently, my husband’s mother passed away, and her 89 year old sister gave the eulogy. She recited a poem from memory (“A Psalm of Life” by Longfellow), and as I discovered, she has many lengthy poems committed to memory. Their father was a recitator and elocutionist in Canada (where they settled after leaving Ireland), so he often read them poetry and the plays of Shakespeare. A wonderful tradition, and it seems that you have experienced that yourself.

  11. Thanks for the an incredible.Deeply Moving.

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  14. Delighted to have found you through Luanne.
    Seems like we have a lot in common, especially love of Billy Collins and interest in poetry and grief.

  15. Finding this post long after it was written. I am exploring writing poetry and appreciate that you’ve validated my experience. It’s all about grief and loss for me. Thank you!

  16. Thanks for your comment, Bonnie! Poetry is a helpful tool when dealing with loss and a wonderful way to process the complex feelings we have. I wish you well in your exploration. Thanks for reading the post.

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