Death In Poetry Death's futile verse strains to raise from the earth
By James Strecker
Chiseled onto his gravestone: "... an unassuming masterpiece of gentleness."
A poem in remembrance conceals the grave's finality like an overgrow of ivy, only with words. Or is it the grave that, in the end, roots the futile poem beneath a coffin it strains to raise from the earth.
In either reality, if you write poetry, you want to remember that, for a while, you lived more in someone else than within yourself. You want to remember the dead into life again.
You may segue, when you consider life ended, to speculation on love or even, with wounded cynicism, how we invariably do violence by knowing one another. You may try very hard, try too hard, not to remain where you are, what you are, thinking and feeling unyielding pain as you do.
But death often cuts deep, deep and unhealing. In words or in silence, there's no way out. Still, for some reason, poetry guides us, in words, to remember. Like many, I've tried dealing with death by creating poetry.
When Canadian gallery owner Julius Lebow died, I sobbed throughout writing a poem from which these few words were later chiseled onto his gravestone: "...his life a gentle life, an unassuming masterpiece of gentleness."
I also wrote a poem when Harold Town died and read it at a wake in Rosedale in Toronto, Canada, at a tribute at the Royal Ontario Museum and on CBC's Morningside. Over a hundred listeners requested a copy and another friend, now dead from brain cancer, told me, "I'll remember that line 'you know you'll be dead before you are well again' for the rest of my life."
"You write a lot about death," commented Canuck commentator Peter Gzowski and, yes, that's true. In a poem to my father, these words: "Beside you I have walked into music and come out a changed man..." And when Dizzy Gillespie died, these words in memory of an afternoon together: "...he showed me a photo of Billie inside his trumpet case and he let me know that we knew something together..."
My first published poem, many years ago, was Wasyl Szewczyk, another death poem which follows. The poem achieves momentum and some deepening, I think, through juxtapositions of fact and distressing or life-celebrating asides. For your convenience, each section in the poem and comments on it have been numbered alike.
1. At the outset, a tone-setting suggestion of wisdom and dignity. The peasant-born Charlie here becomes a monk-like sage in his simple "method" of living. "Be patient." is slightly ironic because poverty allowed him no other option.
2. More irony. Marriage, sometimes an act of love, here involves scheming widows.
3. Select details to summarize a life and one love forgotten.
4. Another compact summary: Charlie was poor and an alien, and they'd even taken his name from him.
5. The poor save their best under wraps for a special occasion that often never comes. But also a hint of celebration, for his life was not wasted.
6. The repetition is intended to make sure we get his real name, say his name, remember it.
7. Another compact summary of his life, of why he hated the system, and -- more irony -- of how he had fled one lousy existence for another.
8. To undermine the blunt biographical facts, we now discover some simple things that made a simple man admirable. He became a musician, a barber, a lover of poetry, sensitive in spirit and in manner. Also, an everyday habit to make him real: belching was de rigueur among peasants to show gratitude for food. And a peaceful sense of cycle, life to death, and he is buried where he and earth were one.
9. We miss him, partly because this beloved Slav peasant would have found a few witty words to help us through his death. There is paradox here: death is a "friend." because the dead are "lucky" to have died and be free of their system-owned lives.
10. He remains beyond our understanding for "He should have hated the world" in our eyes and didn't.
11. The patience noted in the first stanza is rounded out in two simple facts: he is dead but -- no irony, but more celebration, here -- as an old man "he learned to play the violin."
James Strecker is the author or editor of two dozen books and CD-ROMs. His collaborators as a poet include artist Harold Town, in the books Black on jazz and Pas De Vingt on ballet, photographer Bill Smith, and composers Barend Schipper and Wolfgang Bottenberg. He is also a journalist and a human development consultant. He is currently writing a book on creativity and is seeking a publisher for his book for writers. http://www.jamesstrecker.com/js.htm email: firstname.lastname@example.org