Death Poems: Peverse and Pedestrian Ways of “Making it New”

By the pricking of my thumbs,
       something wicked this way comes.

Macbeth Act IV Scene 1

by Ron Hayes

Recently I was speaking with a colleague new to our school. He had just learned that I was the outgoing Poet Laureate of Erie, Pennsylvania and as we were talking I heard him say, “Here, I got something to show you.” (This was the point at which my thumbs should have started pricking.) He whipped out his brand-new iPhone 6 and with it thrust a couple-three pages of original poetry into my hands. “Whaddaya think of that?” he asked.

Now I know how doctors must feel.

What did I think? Well, my first thought was that it was scary—first because I hardly knew the guy and yet there he was handing me some deep, highly personal scribblings for an on-the-spot critique, and second because… it was BAD. Scary bad. The irony of it happening at the outset of the month of October didn’t escape me. Sadly, I couldn’t escape him either. He stood and watched as I tried to read his work while simultaneously panicking to figure a tactful way out of the predicament. I squirmed for a bit, pretending to concentrate on the mishmash of tired cliches, but in the end I basically let him have it. I like to think I was somewhat tactful as I shredded his work one poem after the other…

Next to love, there is perhaps no other trope in poetry more used, abused, and misused than death. These poems were chock full of both. And it’s not all that surprising. New poets, particularly ones who want to write in earnest but don’t feel an equal compunction to actually read modern poetry, make such mistakes when they first put pen to paper. To a very real degree, I believe it’s just about impossible nowadays to become a poet without slogging through that particular growing pain. Death poems, like love poems, are essential conduits for us poets as we explore what it means to live and be human, to die and become memories. The question becomes one of how to write death poems well.

Death and poetry have gone hand-in-hand for as long as mankind has committed lines to memory. From early dirges and laments to Donne’s Holy Sonnets, through Shakespeare’s sonnets to William Cullen Bryant’s stunning “Thanatopsis” (written when he was just 17), poets have commented on this aspect of the human condition from every perspective imaginable. And the best of them have continually done as Ezra Pound exhorted us to do: Make It New.

This month, as we at 5Writers explore the role Death plays in our writing and the writing we love, it would be easy for me to toss out a few easy platitudes about some of the biggies, the more obvious choices (like “Death Be Not Proud” or “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” or “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” for example). Instead, I’d like to show you some different choices from some poets that have gone above and beyond Pound’s challenge. First up, Frank Bidart.

In a truly messed up, but brilliant poem that has been a favorite of mine since the first time I read it, Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White” explores death from an unprecedented and unnerving perspective.

—It sounds crazy, but I tell you
sometimes it was beautiful—; I don’t know how
to say it, but for a minute, everything was possible—;
and then,
well, like I said, she didn’t move: and I saw,
under me, a little girl was just lying there in the mud:
and I knew I couldn’t have done that,—
somebody else had to have done that,—
standing above her there,
in those ordinary, shitty leaves…

From it’s startling opening line (“When I hit her on the head, it was good,”), evocative and confrontational in its echoing of Genesis, to the above passage where we learn that the speaker is most definitely a child killer, to the speaker’s stark and unexpected confession at the end, “Herbert White” is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of death poetry. Primarily because it focuses our attention away from death, the genius of Bidart’s poem lies in the frankness of the speaker as he prattles his way through the issues and the trauma that has rendered him not a victim of death, but instead a conduit of death. For perhaps the first time a poem takes us into the mind of a murderer and brings us as readers to the precipice of compassion, only to dash us away again by reminding us how reprehensible the speaker’s actions and how contemptible the speaker himself. Had Ezra survived long enough to have read “Herbert White,” I have to think a little tiny part of him might say after reading it, “I said ‘Make it New,’ but damn! Not sure I meant THAT new!!”

Leaving Herbert White’s blithe detachment from the magnitude of death in Bidart’s poem, we move on to a wholly different approach to death that goes completely in the opposite direction. Where Bidart overtly challenges the reader to accept, confront, and entertain notions of compassion and revulsion for a deranged murderer, Billy Collins twists the quotidian into microscopic moments of magnitude. Consider the title poem to his 1998 collection Picnic, lightning. Beginning with its odd title, we see that it is in fact borrowed directly from Nabokov’s seminal novel, Lolita: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.” By invoking this epigraph for us, Collins borrows a bit of that same detachment as we see in “Herbert White” and uses it as a similar backdrop to a wholly different approach to his speaker. Note here the masterful, Poundian “newness” Collins gives us here is first in the lovely language that euphemizes the body’s sudden rejection of life:

And we know the message
can be delivered from within.
The heart, no valentine,
decides to quit after lunch,
the power shut off like a switch,
or a tiny dark ship is unmoored
into the flow of the body’s rivers,
the brain a monastery,
defenseless on the shore.

This is what I think about
when I shovel compost
into a wheelbarrow,

Collins’s defenseless monastery as a metaphor for the brain is at once apt and accessible and graceful. We can all but see the blood clot embolism as a dark, helpless ship careening uncontrolled through the river-vessels of the brain just looking for a place to lodge and become destructive.

Secondly, the juxtaposition of the monastery/ship metaphor with the pedestrian task of shoveling compost into a wheelbarrow is a sly, but brilliantly effective moment of comparison and contrast. If we see the ship as a catalyst for death, we need to also see how it settles in like a cat on a lap atop the competing idea of the speaker working life-giving compost (itself a metaphor of the cycle of life) into a wheelbarrow. Unlike “Herbert White,” “Picnic, lightning” prompts us to consider death as less a conduit of horror and perversity and more a peaceful mechanism for the continuation of the species.

So what’s the point of all this? The idea is this: Death as subject matter for poetry is awful. And amazing. It runs the gamut from incredibly liberating and inspiring to tired, overwrought, bludgeons of the cliché parade. With all that’s been written over the centuries death will continue to be a cornerstone of material from which we poets draw our inspiration. As I challenged my colleague in my impromptu critique of his work, it is our responsibility as poets to continually challenge ourselves to find new, fresh ways to explore what death means for us, both as individuals and as human beings. In offering insights on the ways these two poems approach death from a unique perspective, I hope to derail at least a handful of bad starts to poems about death. Remember, death is old, like poetry. It’s been around forever. Keep Ezra in mind. Make it new. It won’t kill you to try…

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