When we asked our community of grievers to share their favorite poems about grief, we expected a handful of submissions. Within an hour we had dozens. So many shared how important poetry has been in their grief. This should not have been a surprise.
There is an intersection when a poem about grief meets a person in the depth of their deepest loss. Something is created in that space. A grief poem can be powerful to any reader. It can be painful and beautiful. But in the space where griever intersects with grief poetry, it is something unique and powerful.
In philosophy and aesthetics, there is much discussion around the concept of the sublime. Schopenhauer suggested that people experience the full feeling of the sublime when faced by the overwhelming, turbulent power of nature. A power so great it can destroy you – an avalanche, a volcano. I have often thought that, in grief, when we observe art that captures the depths of loss, it taps into the sublime. A philosopher of aesthetics would rip me to shreds, but I stand by this. When one who has been destroyed by grief sees that captured in poetry, it is not abstract. It is not theoretical. It is facing the destruction that one has felt in their own loss.
What we hope to create here is a space to better understand why we live this pain and then find comfort, solace, even pleasure, as we find it in art. We ask you to read these poems and share what they bring to your grief and what your grief brings to these poems. Share your thoughts about any or all of the three poems below in the comments. And in the coming weeks, stay tuned for more grief poetry posts.
Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever. Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive. Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
What the Living Do by Marie Howe Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of. It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking, I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve, I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning. What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it. But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless: I am living. I remember you.
Catastrophe Is Next to Godliness by Franny Choi Lord, I confess I want the clarity of catastrophe but not the catastrophe. Like everyone else, I want a storm I can dance in. I want an excuse to change my life. The day A. died, the sun was brighter than any sun. I answered the phone, and a channel opened between my stupid head and heaven, or what was left of it. The blankness stared back; and I made sound after sound with my blood-wet gullet. O unsayable—O tender and divine unsayable, I knew you then: you line straight to the planet’s calamitous core; you moment moment moment; you intimate abyss I called sister for a good reason. When the Bad Thing happened, I saw every blade. And every year I find out what they’ve done to us, I shed another skin. I get closer to open air; true north. Lord, if I say Bless the cold water you throw on my face, does that make me a costume party. Am I greedy for comfort if I ask you not to kill my friends; if I beg you to press your heel against my throat—not enough to ruin me, but just so—just so I can almost see your face—
Heavy by Mary Oliver That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying I went closer, and I did not die. Surely God had his hand in this, as well as friends. Still, I was bent, and my laughter, as the poet said, was nowhere to be found. Then said my friend Daniel, (brave even among lions), “It’s not the weight you carry but how you carry it – books, bricks, grief – it’s all in the way you embrace it, balance it, carry it when you cannot, and would not, put it down.” So I went practicing. Have you noticed? Have you heard the laughter that comes, now and again, out of my startled mouth? How I linger to admire, admire, admire the things of this world that are kind, and maybe also troubled – roses in the wind, the sea geese on the steep waves, a love to which there is no reply?
Separation by W. S. Merwin Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.
Share your reflections on these poems about grief or any general reflections about poetry and loss in the comments below. We will be sharing more grief poems in the coming weeks.