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
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.