I have begun to believe in, and even to preach, a poetry of necessity. This is a recognition not just of the necessity of poetry to our lives, but also the fact that necessity is what drives most of the poetry that matters, or the way that it matters. The best poems, it seems to me, evince their origins in the need to speak, or to write; to render a complex fate simply; to render chaos as chaos; or to examine the unseen complexities of seemingly simple, even everyday, experience. A poem must be willing to be unwilled, beckoned by need.
             No one wants to write an elegy. I presume we simply must, the death of someone dear—or even a stranger—calling forth words that fail to explain, but sometimes provide our only comfort. It is out of such need, and for its consolation, that I have gathered the poems in this anthology: to reveal the many ways poets seek to find words and form to contain loss; and to fulfill the reader’s need for comfort and companionship in the words of another. Often, in death, everything else fails. We are left only with the music and the meaning of poetry.
           The Art of Losing gathers together some of the best contemporary elegies—mainly those written in the twentieth century and after—with a particular focus on recent poems. I have included one or two nineteenth century poems that seem to me absolutely necessary and remarkably modern—as with the powerful work of Emily Dickinson and the “[Carrion Comfort]” of Gerard Manley Hopkins—but have for the most part tried to stick to poems that are contemporary classics, or soon ought to be. The poems here focus on grief and its healing, however tentative or untold.
          Truth be known, I was surprised not to find this book already on bookstore shelves. There have been a few academic studies of the history of the elegy, and a few collections of poems about mourning, featuring some of the more familiar lines—John Donne’s “Death be not proud,” for instance—that may come to mind when someone dies. But it seemed time to engage our current day’s perspective on loss, which, while it draws on a long history of understanding bereavement, also attempts to interpret it anew. Indeed, one key aspect of contemporary elegy is the desire to represent the experience, to re-experience it through language—to evoke, that is, and not just describe, the pain of passing. In doing so, these poems focus less on the often formal process of mourning and instead on the personal and often bewildering process of grief.
            In a way, the process of grief, I have found, can mirror that of writing: it is surprising, trying, frustrating, daunting, terrifying, comforting, chastening, challenging, and at times, heartening; grief can provide fellowship with others interested in the experience; it brings out the best in us, and at times the worst, if only because it is utterly human. It can feel inevitable, but it is so personal, so differently pitched for each, that it can reside across a great gulf. Yet poetry, like grief, can be the thing that bridges the gap between us, that brings us together and binds us.

           The music of the modern elegy has no set form. It can be short or long; a well-wrought outpouring like Donald Hall’s “Without”; or an almost mute rendering of the stunned shock of loss, like Brenda Shaughnessy’s “Ever.” Modern elegy encompasses the formal restraint of W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues”—its tight rhyme, like that of the blues form, fighting the feeling of being blue—and the stark emotional restraint of Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—.” This “formal feeling” of mourning recognizes that public mourning, with its rituals and rites, can often rescue us from overwhelming feeling. Such traditions provide their own comfort, and the elegy’s long tradition its feeling in form-proves no different.
           Yet elegies are not ideas. They are experiences, carved out of our individual perspective and our collective journey through this life. It is tempting to say this is true as well of most good poems, but that might  be overstating it—there are, after all, many significant and even moving poems about thinking, about the meditative parts of human nature. When it comes to grief, however, thinking alone is no good. To lose someone close to you is to enter an experience no amount of forethought or hindsight can free you from. You must live through grief. You cannot outsmart it, nor think through the fact of someone’s being gone, and forever. You must survive the sorrow. This does not mean that the elegy cannot contemplate; indeed, with luck, one emerges from grief not just with emptiness, but wisdom—though of a kind you’d gladly unlearn for your loved one to return.
         After my father suddenly died, killed in an accident, I would have given near anything to have him return to us, even for just a moment. Instead, I waited for him to visit me, in dream if that’s what was meant to be. He never did. I realize now that such visitations, as Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Myth” enacts, bring their own sorrows—the stark light of morning reinforcing the ongoing mourning—despite dream’s temporary reprieve.
I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,

the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking

you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.

What grief tells us is that you don’t always get a chance to say good-bye. And yet in many ways, the poetic elegy does just that. Sometimes it says So long; sometimes See you ’round; sometimes the poem’s filled with anger, asking Why?; other poems say simply, Wait. Galway Kinnell’s poem of that name, “Wait”—an entreaty for someone to stay in this world, not to leave too early—can also be read as a desire to console the living about the experience of loss:

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become interesting.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again;
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands.

Though dedicated to the dead, in a crucial way elegies are written for the living. Honoring the departed, these poems connect with the idea of loss in a way that may comfort those left behind, if only as companions in grief.

To lose someone today is to go into strange realms of “bereavement specialists” and sympathy cards and funeral arrangements—things you suddenly realize have been going on for a good while, without you, in something of a parallel world. The world of grief can feel like that, a limbo realm that at the least gives you a strong perspective on the everyday world: Why are all these people walking around, oblivious to loss? Why am I still here while my loved one is not? Surviving any death can carry its own guilt. It also brings on a slew of cliches, often offered in lieu of sympathy, that can sometimes cause more anxiety than comfort. It is hard to know what to say. The poems here seek to avoid cliche, in order to say what needs to be said. And also to say that it is the everyday, not the epic; the unexpected, not the well-worn phrase that the modern elegy may find most comforting.
        In my own grief it was and is the smallest kindnesses that still stick with me: the man who gave me my father’s dry cleaning for free, refusing my repeated offers to pay; the dry cleaning I’d had to drive all over town looking for, using old tags found on other of his still-plastic wrapped clothes as a guide. How to explain “I’m looking for my dead father’s clothes, things he’ll never need,” yet that, duty-bound, you do? Death brings with it a duty and devotion that cannot be explained to those who don’t know it. Why, after all, would you keep his crummy plaid shirts and give his good suits away? Why do material things matter at once less and more? Why, in the void, does ritual, both inherited and invented, rush in?
       The poems in this collection consider less than this, and more: duty, hindsight, sorrow, fury, frustration, acceptance, even transcendence. I have structured the book something like the journey of mourning—not the now—classic stages of grief (as laid out by Elisabeth Kiibler-Ross in her groundbreaking On Death and Dying), but something more like the range of responses to it. And if in its movement from Reckoning to Regret, through Remembrance to Ritual and Recovery, this book doesn’t necessarily resolve the grieving process with simple acceptance, it does end with a kind of Redemption, much as in Kinnell: Hair will become interesting. And with it, life. The countless little details that make life up—that in the throes of grief seem at once unbearable and meaningless—may become interesting again.
       These details are expressed in every section of the book. Reckoning, the book’s first section, encompasses the immediate reactions to a death, whether long expected or sudden—an experience where the world is both more present, and far less. “Stop all the clocks,” “Do not pick up the telephone,” “Do not go gentle into that good night,” “Let evening come”: no wonder the voice here is often imperative, still reeling, arguing, and even denying as it takes comfort where it can.
        Reckoning gives way to Regret, a section where wishes meet memory, from one last look to “forgiving my father.” The third section, Remembrance, further considers the relationship to memory—for memory is grief’s parent and its offspring. If Reckoning is filled with orders to “Let evening come” or resist going gently into the dark, then Remembrance is often filled with questioning as well as comfort: What did I know, what did I know/Of Love’s austere and lonely offices? That is, grief spawns memories of the departed, which, in turn, can spawn more grief—but just as often these memories are a balm to mourners, who gather and recollect, who tell tales and perhaps even laugh about those missed.
       Such gathering is at the heart of this anthology and also of its fourth section, Ritual, which considers both the public and private sides of the various rites of mourning—from cleaning out a loved one’s closet, to pall bearing, to prayer or its attempt, to refashioning a new set of traditions, to sharing the memory of the departed in conversation or over a last meal. Memory may indeed be like the food found after a wake, whether in the African American tradition of repast or the feasts that follow many a memorial service. This breaking bread afterward is a form of ceremony every bit as crucial as the service itself. Remembrance and the rituals of mourning sustain us individually even as they bring us together.
        I am struck here that in our times of need, or high celebration, we reach for poetry just as we do food. It seems that the music of poetry whether a love poem for a wedding or a verse of whatever holy book we believe in—helps us mark an occasion, to recognize its importance, and even to help set it apart. While this might seem to relegate poetry to mere monument, I think it is in grief that we need some reminder of our humanity—and, sometimes, someone to say it for us. Poetry steps in at those moments when ordinary words fail: poetry as ceremony, as closure to what cannot be closed.

Even healing hurts. Ritual may eventually give way to Recovery, the title of the fifth section of the book-recovery not being something inevitable, but something that can surprise us survivors, what Jane Mayhall calls “this complex, heartbreak survival.” One need not be a poet like W. S. Merwin to experience the shock of finding oneself “in life as in a strange garment”—but we may need his description of it. Like all elegies, in some key way this section is for the living, who may go on to seek the kind of Redemption found in the last section of the book, which opens with Philip Larkin's “The Trees”:

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

The greenness of grief—its returning, like the leaves—seems to me one of the best ways to understand it as an experience. It is perennial, yet ebbs and flows, “Like something almost being said.” Even grief’s lessening can be something to be mourned; ironically, there are days when, by not feeling so bad, we fear and feel we are betraying our loved ones.
        This attempt to remember, speak of, argue with, and honor the dead is exactly what the elegies in this volume chart. Full of forms and full of fury, these poems are reconciled and inconsolable, ragged and raw and filled with revelation. This book’s title comes from a poem that itself is about trying to cope with loss, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” with its famous last lines:

                                                  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

This convincing of the self, a self-conscious mustering of courage, is one thing that may separate the modern elegy from those that went before, though most elegies seem to require an appeal to someone, or something, some force of nature greater than the self in order to help say the words being written. Elegies often get their power from declaring they have none.
         You may have already noted that Bishop’s “One Art” is not technically an elegy—at least, its impetus is not strictly speaking a death, but the end of a relationship. (And more.) Yet the “loss” discussed by Bishop, if not a literal death, seems in the poem a symbolic one. So I have decided to include it.
         The thing about death is: it isn't symbolic, but very real. Yet in our elegiac age, the tone of elegy, however varied, has been borrowed to discuss everything from lost childhoods to the loss of childhood friends. Apart from one or two instances, I have resisted too broad a definition—! have generally not included poems, say, of illness or other difficulties or life passages, simply because there seems nothing quite like bereavement itself. And yet on a few occasions, such as “One Art” or Joseph Brodsky’s “A Song,” when a poem seems somehow to transform in the light of loss, where missing the Beloved can be read in a way that sheds light on the Departed, I have included it.
        I have chosen, I should note, not to include one of the strongest strains of elegy: the poem mourning or celebrating a famous person or literary or popular figure after his or her passing. This is the source of many of our most powerful elegies, from poems about jazz musicians to those dedicated to fellow poets—often people who weren’t mere icons to those writing the poems, but friends and loved ones. Especially as I have previously included some of these in my Blues Poems and Jazz Poems anthologies, I made a decision early on to focus here on the personal, rather than the iconic, side of elegy.
      Working within such parameters we may miss out on W. H. Auden’s beautiful “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” with its powerful descriptions and its claim that “poetry makes nothing happen”—a declaration that seems belied by the poem itself. Yet we gain Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” which I think is one of the heights of the form and which may indeed inaugurate the contemporary elegy. Its dispassionate testimony, its unerring grief, its blunt riffing off the musical form which Auden seems to capture quite well, the strictness of his form substituting for the blues’ repeating phrases and tragicomic humor—all seem part of the modern elegy. So too, Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” which describes everyday suffering in a way many readers have found redemptive in their own reading, painting as it does a view of how suffering often happens while we’re not looking. Or worse, looking away, and on. One modern aspect of elegy is the way in which death seems our one certainty, and yet the one thing we cannot easily discuss. These poems seek to remedy this.
      Since Auden’s time, the contemporary elegy as represented here has allowed itself to be heartbroken, but also humorous; metaphoric, but also visceral; comforted and, as in Auden’s own “Funeral Blues,” beyond comforting. Sometimes an elegy does this all at once. The contemporary elegy offers testimony that both describes and defies what Auden speaks of in “Musee des Beaux Arts”: “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters.” The new masters of the elegy here agree with the notion that the world goes on without noticing loss, even as their poems disprove it.

For my father’s first funeral, in Kansas, where he died—before his subsequent burial and a second funeral in Louisiana, where he was born—I actually asked my earliest writing mentor to read “Funeral Blues.” To some it may have seemed a bleak choice, but for me it represented one key side of grief: the shock, surprise, and short shrift one can feel upon hearing such news, as expressed in the book’s Reckoning section:

          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 for ever: I was wrong.

I hadn’t picked Auden arbitrarily, as he was a poet my father liked—indeed, the only poet I know of his buying. (With my books, he didn’t have a choice, as I sent them to him!) Among his things, and the books and notes I sent him, several of which I didn’t even remember sending, was an Auden volume he’d bought. In the front of the Collected Poems my father had copied out two lines: 

        If equal affection cannot be,
        Let the more loving one be me.

It strikes me now that this one piece of poetry my father found moving enough to scrawl in his own hand might be said to speak to the mourner’s wish: to love more, to continue loving even when one cannot hear from the beloved any longer. Indeed, it is too often that death clarifies a love that was there all along.
       It is my sincere hope that these poems, the best of our time, may help us on our journey—not just in contemplating death, but in living our lives. They may remind us, as a source as seemingly unlikely as Philip Larkin does, that ”we should be kind/While there is still time” and to “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” Elegies are just as often for the living, remember. And while these poems chronicle loss and its rituals, elegies also celebrate life—and ask us to care for ours, if only by honoring others. And, in that way, “death shall have no dominion.”

© Kevin Young, 2013, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.