Tragedy and grief can be encountered privately or publicly, felt in secret or experienced and expressed as a community. Poems of tragedy and grief address the occasions where words are difficult, from personal heartbreak to the Vietnam War to September 11, illuminating and sanctifying private and public loss. These poems try to help us to heal, or give us wisdom, or lend support in time of need. If they don’t say the unsayable, then they attempt it valiantly, speaking when we are afraid to speak, and bravely giving a voice to a collective grief.
In his poem "Facing It," Yusef Komunyakaa, a veteran of the Vietnam War, remembers his experience visiting Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.:
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
In this lyrical poem, Komunyakaa identifies both the public nature of the tragedy--the 58,022 names immortalized on the Memorial Wall--and his personal loss. He is inside the memorial in the poem, his reflection implicating him and including him in the tragedy. Yet when the light shifts, the names of the lost still remain.
After the attacks of September 11, there was an outpouring of national grief and an uncharacteristic attention to poetry. Almost overnight, collections of poems were gathered on the various corners of the internet, some famous, some new. There seemed to be pressure on well-known poets to produce a poem, or refuse the opportunity, as the new Poet Laureate Billy Collins did, saying in an interview with NPR that the occasion was "too stupendous" for a single poem to handle. He said that the terrorists had done something "beyond language."
Yet it is this lack of language that some writers attempt to fill with poetry, and there were certainly enough poets casting about for the right words. Ann Lauterbach, for example, wrote the meditative and mournful poem "Hum" and Martín Espada wrote "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100" about World Trade Center restaurant employees killed in the attack:
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the booming ice storm of glass from the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in
like a cook's soul.
In Robert Frost’s poem, "Out, Out--" he expresses the more personal grief of the loss of a child when his hand is cut off by a buzz saw. However, it differs from a simple elegy in that it seeks to express the effect of the loss on the people around the child:
They listened to his heart.
Little - less - nothing! - and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
Stanley Kunitz begins his poem "Night Letter" with the line, "Violence shakes my dreams" and continues:
As scholars dungeoned in an ignorant age
Tended the embers of the Trojan fire.
Cities shall suffer siege and some shall fall,
But man's not taken. What the deep heart means,
Its message of the big, round, childish hand,
Its wonder, its simple lonely cry,
The bloodied envelope addressed to you,
Is history, that wide and mortal pang.
Tragedy and grief are motifs not exclusive to contemporary poetry. From certain passages of Homer’s Iliad, to the war poems of W. B. Yeats, to the devastating loss and the accompanying erosion of speech expressed in T. S. Eliot’s "The Wasteland," there is an endless poetic return to the subjects of loss and tragedy. Here are a few poems that begin to give voice to the things beyond speech:
"Requiem" by Anna Akmatova
"Memorial Day for the War Dead" by Yehuda Amichai
"September 1, 1939" by W. H. Auden
"On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam" by Hayden Carruth
"I Measure Every Grief I Meet (561) " by Emily Dickinson
"Mercy" by Rita Dove
"To a Terrorist" by Stephen Dunn
"The Wasteland" by T.S. Eliot
"Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100" by Martín Espada
"Out, Out—" by Robert Frost
"Facing It" by Yusef Komunyakaa
"Requiescat" by Matthew Arnold
"Night Letter" by Stanley Kunitz
"What are Years" by Marianne Moore
"Sonnet 64: When I have seen by Time's fell hand" by William Shakespeare
"Ozymandias," by Percy Bysshe Shelley
"Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" by William Carlos Williams
"Easter 1916" by W.B. Yeats
"The Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats