- Books, Literature, and Writing
Ten Poems About Grief and Loss
Poems for Healing
I've lost a lot of people close to me. It's shocking and terrible every time. Somehow, I'm never prepared. Over the years, poetry has been one of the big ways that I've coped with loss. If you, too, are grieving, poetry can help you put words to feelings, and remind you that you aren't alone. These are the top ten poems that have helped me in the past. I hope you can find the same comfort in them that I have.
1. Michiko Dead by Jack Gilbert
Jack Gilbert (1925-2012) wrote this poem after his wife Michiko died of cancer at the age of 36. It would be hard to commit to one favorite poem that has helped me most, but out of all the amazing poems out there, this one probably rings truest to my experience and offers me the most hope. This is for two reasons.
- Grief has changed me. Each time I've lost someone I love, I've felt like I will never be the same, like I will always be toting around a heavy burden or a gaping hole in my heart. The narrator of "Michiko Dead" feels this way too.
- Gilbert uses the metaphor of carrying a heavy box. You know what happens when you have to repeat the same strenuous activity for a long time? Your muscles strengthen. You adjust. You become accustomed to the weight, more capable of bearing it. You become stronger, and that heavy box feels lighter to you.
Thank you, Jack Gilbert, for writing this poem, which reminds me even in the throes of grief and shock that I am not alone in my pain, and that I will become stronger and more able to bear it.
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
2. One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
"One Art" is one of my favorite poems of all time, and probably the second most famous Villanelle about death (after Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gently"). The circularity of the form mimics the way I can feel trapped in a cycle of losing, but what I love most about it is the deceptively cavalier tone. Bishop insists that loss is no big deal, really, but she repeats it so much that we know she's just trying to convince herself, and that it's a losing battle. This makes the final line "Write it!" all the more powerful.
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
3. Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) is one of the most famous of the World War 1 poets, and this is one of the most epic and devastating poems about war in the English language. I love it for its anger; for the narrator's refusal to accept the tragedy around him as right or just despite what he's been told. Sometimes people, even with the best of intentions, offer platitudes that fill me with rage. It's then that I find this poem particularly cathartic.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
4. Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden
This poem by W.H. Auden (1907-1973) is a classic, which cleverly treads the line between sincere sadness and an over-the-top satire of grief. I think it captures the feeling of utter stillness that sometimes comes with a sudden death, the feeling that life is completely changed, even though all the ordinary pieces of life continue to happen, including the mundane yet often overwhelming logistical details of death. I also really love the version set to music that I've linked to below. It's the kind of poem (and song) that I'll indulge in when I want to wallow.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Stop All the Clocks
5. Book Ends by Tony Harrison
This is the first stanza of a two stanza poem. I only included the first stanza because that's how I first encountered it and how I remember it best. I've always loved how Tony Harrison (1937 - ) uses sort of mundane details to discuss the aftershock of death in this poem. What I love most about it, though, is how its two characters find themselves unable to communicate, torn apart by a shared grief instead of brought together by it. I've experienced this myself and find it incredibly reassuring to find it depicted with such empathy and humor.
Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead
we chew it slowly that last apple pie.
Shocked into sleeplessness you're scared of bed.
We never could talk much, and now don't try.
You're like book ends, the pair of you, she'd say,
Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare…
The 'scholar' me, you, worn out on poor pay,
only our silence made us seem a pair.
Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.
At night you need my company to pass
and she not here to tell us we're alike!
Your life's all shattered into smithereens.
Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what's still between's
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.
7. When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a pinnacle of strength and wisdom, and her books (both poetry and prose) sustained me through my adolescence. People quoted this poem all the time after her death, but I've found it applies not just to the loss of epic badasses like her, but also to anyone who profoundly affected our lives.
When Great Trees Fall
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
― Maya Angelou
When Great Trees Fall
6. Remember by Christina Rossetti
I've had this poem memorized since I was twelve years old, simply because of the beauty of its language. I still recite it to myself often when I feel afraid. Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was preoccupied with death from an early age, and this is her most famous poem on the subject. I find it soothing for its thoughtful, unflinching advice as well as its gentle lullaby-like tone.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
8. Time Does Not Bring Relief by Edna St. Vincent Millay
This is the classic cathartic poem for me; its complete ownership of pain speaks so truly to my experience. That final line, that moment of realizing, "I didn't feel sad today!" or "This place is free of memories!" only to have the thought itself bring sadness is so relatable it gives me shivers. Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was famous in 1920s New York for her vibrant personality and flapper lifestyle, and her poems approach life with the same unabashed whole-heartedness. She put pure emotion on the page, and yet somehow also wrote some of the best sonnets of the 20th century.
Time Does Not Bring Relief
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
9. Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith
This is another poem that has been set to music with wonderful effect. Stevie Smith (1902-1971) suffered all her life from depression and anxiety problems, and I love the combination of humor and truth that she used to address it in her poems. This poem is sad, but written in such a lighthearted tone of voice that I find the message slips into my heart almost unregistered. It reminds me that some tragedies, which might seem so preventable to me looking back, were inevitable. Some people find the world too cold always. But this poem also reminds us to check, to pay attention to who might be drowning around us.
Not Waving but Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Not Waving but Drowning - Music by Tanita Tikaram
10. The Women are Grieving by Linda Hogan
Linda Hogan (1947 - ) is a writer and activist from the Chickasaw Nation who deserves a lot more recognition, in my humble opinion. This poem, which focuses on grief from a specifically female perspective, addresses grief as an essential yet devastating part of life. It portrays the effect a massive amount of loss can have on an entire culture, yet brings it back so flawlessly to the individual level that the two become irrevocably intertwined. Honestly, all I can really say is that when I read this poem, I feel like I am all the women in the poem. I lose myself in their grief, and it comforts me.
The Women are Grieving
is a gold ring surrounding the eye
of a blackbird
and those red-winged birds
returned from war
wearing bloody feathers.
The women are grieving.
They dream cities
that are nothing in one moment.
Clouds opening like flowers.
They dream silence that doesn't break.
They light fat candles their hands molded
in the hopeful shape of children
who are thin.
In the night
a woman hears the blackbird on her roof.
Her dark neck,
her pale neck,
her soft neck where the pulse moves
Hysteria, the doctors say of this pain,
from the womb.
And it is.
She watches while children disappear
in their own eyes.
That quickly you are not alive
and it is nothing
and she knows it.
Light pulls from the candles at the altar
you can pass a hand through
and pull back the wind
that blows through bodies
dancing the edges out of the earth.
Out of the earth
out in the wind
in the dancing rain and sun,
destroyed horses lose their light around them.
An aura of bleached fur
around the bones.
And women are grieving
the children of the world.
Through bloody feathers they are grieving,
through striking matches
and through the lanterns lighting eyes
they are grieving
down the long wick into bad water
the luminous women
who have lost their bright children
Death is turning me around
Death is winning
Death is stealing from me
Death is dancing me ragged.