by Colin Pope
In 2010 my ex, Jennie, killed herself, and I responded by writing about that loss. It wasn’t until I seriously undertook the writing of grief poetry that I realized all poems were grief poems. To be honest, when I began writing about Jennie’s suicide I didn’t have any firm plan to turn it into a book. I think this is how most people begin to cope with grief; they lash out, scribbling or drawing or, in some cases, burning and shattering their realities. That my grieving took the shape of a book was almost accidental. Similarly, the understanding that every poem contains the emotional, physical, or psychological tenor of grief came via dumb luck.
We generally forget about grief during our reading and writing of poetry. I think we forget this out of necessity, since constantly reminding oneself of the specter of loss can grow a little taxing on the nerves. We compartmentalize when we come to lyric or narrative poetry. But all poetry deals in some type of loss, and it’s good to remember this, if only to keep lucid what poetry means to us.
One thing I recall is how more than one of my poetry teachers explained that “most poets spend their entire lives trying to write a single poem.” It’s a fairly common poetry saying, and it’s terribly sad. Every poet has a blind spot in their comprehension of the universe, and they are chasing single, perfect, unachievable poems to offer them lasting, glittering insight into themselves. This blind spot could be a gap between the semiotic capabilities of language and emotion, or simply an inner conflict that will never find resolution; the poet will write about this topic or conflict or theme over and over, even after they know it’s unsolvable. Think about Robert Frost’s obsession with choice and fate, or Wallace Stevens’s burrowing into the workings of the imagination, or Sylvia Plath’s emotional mythologization of the pastoral and domestic. Poetic obsessions like these stem from a longing for meaning, especially at the points where it continually slips from the poet’s grasp. This is grief: a perpetual loss that will never find closure.
In terms of poetics, even the usage of lineation addresses grief. Poets and critics seem perpetually to ask, “How do we define the line?” I know I was called to address this question in many a class. The most common response is that a line of free verse is measured in breath; line breaks are pauses in either thought or speech. There’s a “visual breath” that occurs in poems; it’s how poets lineate their ideas to catch in readers’ minds. So, if breath is implicit in lineation, then the poem is a figure of exhalation. A poem’s reading literally occurs while the body is emptying itself of life force. One poet I know is fond of citing the physiological occurrences within the body in relation to breath: when we inhale, the blood fills with oxygen, the muscle tissue heals, and the bones grow denser, and when we exhale, we do the opposite. Poetry occurs on the dying breath. Each line uttered or written is a line that shortens life while searching for life’s meaning.
Through a lyric poem’s attempt at permanence (it’s written in ink, after all), I find myself reminded of the impermanence that exists in my life. The poet’s cataloguing of their thoughts and feelings is a figuration that serves to affirm intellectual existence; I am here, at this moment, alive. This is also where poetry differs from fiction and other forms of prose. Rather than a narrative that adheres to something like Freytag’s pyramid, concluding with characters experiencing a denouement, poems point their writers and readers to the psyche, to the place where meaning attaches to mortality rather than resolution. (Take even William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” for instance; the realization that “so much depends” upon this wheelbarrow is a sad one when one thinks about making meaning of a life. Or why care about the utility of the object at all if not for its greater, impermanent meaning within that life?) This is not to say that prose writers are immune. I’ve heard a number of fiction writers allude to the idea that writing “lasts forever”; implicit, then, is that writers do not.
This type of thinking used to make me sad. It’s too existential in some ways, too forlorn and depressive. Why write or read poems at all, then? First, let’s not neglect the other half of grief, which is love. Writing about Jennie’s death allowed me to love her—to tell her I loved her and I missed her—in many ways I didn’t while I was alive. In the same way, when I write about more “normal” things now, I’m telling myself I love this moment or this perception, and there’s a lot of earnest virtue in this. But another reason to read and write poems rests inside that old Platonic saw about “the unexamined life.” I suspect—without any real proof, mind you—that poets are the types of people who feel most comfortable examining themselves on paper, tallying up inner thoughts and realizations to discover if their lives are “worth living.”
Both the reading and the writing of such thoughts provides what Socrates himself claimed to be the only important pursuit in life: wisdom. If the knowledge of our own mortality is the initial loss that separates children from adults, then the lifelong grieving for this loss—the certainty that we will, someday, end—must be the catalyst for poetic obsessions. I find this inspiring. It’s easier to write with purpose when I accept the irrevocability of this loss. Grief is inherent in a mortal world; joy, surprise, and humor are not, and each can make welcome additions to a poem.
If you find this circular reasoning confusing, you’re not alone. I still struggle, poetically, with how death lives in the breath and permanence means impermanence and everything is its opposite, and I feel like a pretend mystic when I talk to people about why all poems are grief poems.
But then, sometimes, it helps to clarify if I look at the whole philosophical mess in reverse. Imagine a world where nobody ever died. Imagine yourself in that world. And then ask yourself: what reason would anyone have to write a poem?
Colin Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.