It cannot be expressed with words and it cannot be expressed without words.
It is not true
that death begins after life.
When life stops
death also stops.
translated from the Finland Swedish by David McDuff
I’ve found that poems ‘about death’ tend to actually be about life: about surviving, grieving, ceremony, and remembrance, how we continue to live through a process of change; or they are about the lives of the deceased, the way we remember their lives crossing paths with ours.
Death happens to other people; it inspires, humbles, and preoccupies us, and it is through metaphor and the imagination that we seek to comprehend it. On my upcoming online course this Autumn, I’ve promised to attempt to ‘sneak up on death, find new perspectives on it and glimpse its reality with inspiration from poems that try to find a language for its silence’.
But what is death? How is it? What is it the end of, and what starts? And importantly, what would we do without it?
I should say that for the reasons given above, I’m not including elegies, since they are very much a celebration of life, of recalled personal qualities and events from before death, as well as being part of the poet’s process of continuing with life. And grief, survival, memory, absence, funerals, rituals: all are part of continuation and change, of getting on with surviving. These themes will always saturate our poems – how could they not? – and by all means, you can elegise the departed in your poetry. Perhaps this is unavoidable, which would be revealing in itself about the possibilities for handling this subject matter.
Perhaps by not writing about death we might eventually, by a process of elimination, come closer to what it is. Consider the consequences of immortality, for example: what would be the effect on our lives if we didn’t die? Perhaps the most interesting revelations are allowed to emerge when we let go of trying to write about something directly, and start to look around it, and underneath it.
I have loosely arranged the course into five kinds of approach, with example poems to help us get started:
1. What is death? Straight in at the deep end. Is death an ending or a beginning; what happens at the border between life and death; can we even define one against the other? The course should get easier once we’ve nailed this one…
2. Process, acceptance, remembrance: learning about death by the ways in which we try to assimilate loss into our changed life.
3. Afterlives, voices from beyond the grave: learning about death by engaging imaginatively with the dead to hear them speak. What would they tell us?
4. Metaphor and encoding: talking about death by pretending we’re talking about something else.
5. Zen, the poetry of impermanence: can attentiveness to the instability of the present and the inevitability of change establish a relation with death that enriches life?
A note on the last point: Zen poetry turns not inwards, towards specific loss or grief, but outwards towards nature and the universal law of impermanence. Rather than emotive accounts of personal loss we find clear-sighted observation and a tone of humility, with the acknowledgement of death taking place in the context of respect and awe for nature. The Zen tradition will optimistically conclude our engagement with a theme that usually, unfairly, has a gloomy reputation.
As I said, I think that poetry about death is really poetry about life. In fact, I think it’s completely impossible to write about death when we write poetry. So we can’t really get it wrong on this course, because we could never have got it right. It should be fun. Come inside. The woods are lovely, dark and deep…
Understand death and its surprisingly life-affirming poetry this Autumn on Beverley’s new online course The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep: Articulating Death. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.