Just as we are about to move out of National Poetry Month, I want to sneak in an amazing collection of poems that came out last year. The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (Bloomsbury, 2011; now in paperback) is the book acclaimed poet Kevin Young compiled when he couldn’t find one like it to help him through his father’s sudden, accidental death. The anthology – he calls it “poetry of necessity” – includes 150 works by mostly contemporary poets. One of them, “Funeral Blues,” by W.H. Auden was read at Young’s father’s service. Here is a portion of it:
I. Reckoning: Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.
II. Regret: I believe, but what is belief?
III. Remembrance: What did I know, what did I know…
IV. Ritual: Tomorrow, the bowl I have yet to fill.
V. Recovery: I learn by going where I have to go.
VI. Redemption: What will survive of us is here.
For people who don’t think they can read or appreciate poetry, these selections are broadly accessible; anyone who has lost a loved one will easily relate to so many of them, recognizing in the lyric imagery and universal emotions what they, too, are experiencing. One reviewer called the book a “unique and invaluable gathering of contemporary poems of grief and healing.”
The collection includes predictable works from poets such as Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas and Auden. But it also will introduce many to Sharon Olds, Natasha Trethewey, Cornelius Eady and many others.
Publisher’s Weekly said, "[Young's] latest anthology is his most topical, and, perhaps, his most useful, gathering poems about suffering and overcoming loss.... While these poems won't offer easy answers to grief, they will keep the kind of company that only poetry can, because only poetry can convincingly say, as Ruth Stone does in the last poem of this book, 'All things come to an end. / No, they go on forever.'"
Young’s most recent book, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (2012) recently won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and was featured last week in The New York Times Book Review. Upcoming, this fall, is The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink (Bloomsbury).
Young is the Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English and Curator of Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University in Atlanta. I first became aware of him when he introduced the highly regarded and popular poet Billy Collins at a reading of his new book, Horoscopes for the Dead (Random House, 2011) a collection of 50 of his own poems, also about death.
Here is Collins' poem, "The Dead," included in The Art of Losing:
The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
Which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
The end of Auden’s “Funeral Blues” has long been one of my favorite pieces, but I had not seen the beginning of it before, so I am grateful to this anthology for introducing me to it – and to so many other moving pieces.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
To hear Kevin Young read his poem “Bereavement,” click here.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.
Images: Flickr Creative Commons, paukrus (top) and HaWee