I think I began to understand genre as a gaming arena when my first workshop teacher put W. S. Merwin’s “elegy” on the board:
who would i show it to
I had read Lycidas and “In Memoriam: W. B. Yeats” and enough traditional elegies to know that the elegiac poet usually needs time to tell us who died, so we’ll feel the poet’s loss, and then enough breath to transform the loss into comfort or hope, however complicated. Elegies tended toward the long and the longer, as if volume itself were a way to indicate the poem’s sense of its own importance or of the deceased.
So, Merwin’s poem, so brief, put me on my ear for while, but when I stood again I understood that the elegy is an extremely flexible form—whether extremely long and seemingly disconsolate, like Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” or like Geoffrey Hill’s “September Song” elliptical and encrypted in another form (the sonnet).
(I’ll say about Merwin’s poem, too, I don’t think I had ever seen a one-line poem (a “monostich,” which on its face provides the rules for another game—one you can play on road-trips).)
I started playing seriously with the elegy a little more than a decade ago when I began to respond to histories of racially-motivated murders in Alabama, my home state. In my “Elegy for James Knox,” I tried a pattern reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s “Elegy,” leaving the consolatory motion for the very end, compressing just that part of the form into a brief space. In “Consolation,” I tried to pull the consolation movement of the traditional elegy, which is usually separate from the lamentation, up and over the lamentation—so the poem gives you the facts and tries to elicit the reader’s sympathies while also constructing the consolation.
Tarfia, what were your first encounters with the form, and what have you been able to do with (or within) it?
TF: My first encounters with elegy were linked to another form: the epistle. When my sister first passed away, I silently spoke to her often. It was a way of conjuring her as much as it was a way to comfort myself. That early speaking later gave way to several spare elegies in which I address her directly.
I agree that the elegy is an extremely flexible form: I appreciate the way the elegy, like grief, can be as bare bones as it can be intricate and complicated. I always do a unit on the elegy with my students because we all have something to mourn. I ask my students to focus their elegies around some kind of artifact, which is what I did in my poem “Namesake,” an elegy within an elegy that centers around my grandmother bestowing my sister’s name upon an orphaned village girl after her death. Writing and revising this poem reminded me of the ways in which the elegy can acknowledge the shortcomings of the process of mourning as well as mourning itself, a notion that Merwin’s “elegy” is such a devastating enactment of.
That’s one of the inescapable problems of the elegy: it is written in honor or someone who can never read it. What comes to mind is Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi’s distinctions between the drowned and the saved: only the drowned can really know the depths of their experiences of dying, but they cannot testify. It is the saved who must do their best to render it. And as the saved, we always fail in our task. Or as Paul Steinberg puts it, “Can one be so guilty for having survived?”
This is one of the reasons I love Natasha Trethewey’s “Elegy,” written for her father who is still living. It acknowledges the fraught but necessary process of recording loss: “Your daughter,/I was that ruthless,” she writes. Similarly, Jake, your “Consolation,” and its relentless repeated suppositions beginning with “if” remind us that we are always uncertain in the face of loss: even as we know we cannot undo it, we are helpless before the possibility.
I’ve talked about some possible shortcomings of the elegy, but what do you think it is able to accomplish and how?
JAY: If you’ve been talking of the elegy’s shortcomings, you’ve also been talking about one of its great strengths, that it allows us to acknowledge the difficulties of mourning—it offers a place for us to feel and express that uncertainty you name in the face of loss.
As difficult as it may be, that uncertainty is a gift, however: as certain as we can be that our dead mother or father or sister or friend will not return, our uncertainty about what will happen—especially when the loss is fresh—also allows one to imagine that the dead might return. Isn’t this what happens in Lycidas—Milton’s friend dies, and he Milton tries to wish or call him back, and ends up turning him into a saint or a kind of guardian angel, so he’s always back? The elegy is, for me, a poem of transformation where the imagination provides what the logical mind cannot.
Or, to put this another way, the elegy is a poem of revision. Sometimes this revision fails, sometimes it amounts to the same thing (loss), but sometimes it flies. There’s a haunting poem in Trethewey’s Native Guard called “Myth,” which is an envelope poem—the last nine lines are simply the first nine lines in reverse order—which shows a revision that doesn’t move anywhere: only the order is changed, but the effect is the same. In her first book, Domestic Work, “Limen” shows the complicated lifting elegy can manage. I’m going to quote the whole poem here:
All day I’ve listened to the industry
of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree
just outside my window. Hard at his task,
his body is a hinge, a door knocker
to the cluttered house of memory in which
I can almost see my mother’s face.
She is there, again, beyond the tree,
its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves,
hanging wet sheets on the line–each one
a thin white screen between us. So insistent
is this woodpecker, I’m sure he must be
looking for something else–not simply
the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift
the tree might hold. All day he’s been at work,
tireless, making the green hearts flutter.
The mother doesn’t return in body, but the poem allows itself to imagine—and to show us—what’s impossible: “She is there, again,” and the poet’s heart, and our hearts, tremble at the possibility.
For the writer, the challenge in the elegy is two-fold: you have to acknowledge, as you have, the great difficulty of writing about loss, even though the loss has diminished your capacity to write about it, but you also have to find a way to make the turn toward the possible—to make the turn of mourning, away from the totality of grief and toward the possible—and a way to make it believable.
So, if there’s a nuts-and-bolts technical note to offer the would-be elegist, I’d suggest writing a sonnet instead, since the sonnet turns (literally) on the volta, which I think is the most important part of a sonnet. To paraphrase Frost, if the poem doesn’t move, it can’t move you.
And to approach this, I might suggest a simple word-game. I give you a word, and you come up with an answer for that word, a new word that complements but goes beyond the scope of the original. So, if you say “coffee,” I say “marathon.” When I say “marathon,” I’m reading “coffee” as something that wakes you up, ramps you up, gets you ready for the long work of the day, in response to which “marathon” is both the kind of thing you might need to wake up for and a kind of “long work.” As with the work of mourning, you can’t control what you’re given, but you can control how you respond to it.
So, I’ll hand this back to you with a word: “eraser.”
TF: “Palimpsest!” Elegies function as palimpsests as well: we are layering memories and images and language over something that is less absent than it is invisible, which goes back to your notion of an elegy as a poem of transformation and revision.
One of my favorite in-class activities (with thanks to Allison Titus) is the erasure: I bring in various texts and bottles of white out, and the new texts created are always little miracles of language, metaphor, and meaning. What’s magical too, of course, is that the original text is never completely erased away: the new text is lifted from that text like a shell lifted from an entire shoreline.
The exercise is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s beautiful and haunting long poem/book Little White Shadow, in which she has “erased” or painted over a forgotten nineteenth-century book to create a literal and metaphorical elegy: “The dead,” she writes, “borrow so little from/the past/as if they were alive.”
JAY: That’s a nice way to think of it—and to read any of the poems we’ve mentioned, as writing over the fact of loss or within the spaces erasure’s made.
[Note: We'll return to elegy in two weeks. Meanwhile, we're eager for comments or questions...]