So many poems are written about death, but it is the nature of language to describe something that can be described or to reason about abstractions.  Death is neither, and that presents a problem for poetry.  When anyone dies, there is an absence, one life is missing from all the ways it interacted with other lives.  Further, that life is now fixed in place as a memory.  Whatever it was is what it will be.  Memories may soften or harden, but the life itself is beyond changing.  To romanticize or sentimentalize a dead person’s life is to lie about it.  We owe the dead the duty of being truthful to the facts of the life that was here.

Joseph Brodsky once told his seminar at Columbia that elegies are usually about their author, not the person being elegized.  Even Auden, whom Brodsky praised for keeping himself out of his elegies, weighs his subjects by the posthumous effects of their lives.  The manner of their deaths are generally irrelevant, subordinate in Yeats’s case to the weather.  Their missteps in life are also subordinated to what they become in death, how they exist in collective memory and thought.  Auden’s elegies were great, for sure, but they border on the apologetic.  They have a bad conscience.  The twentieth century mind, much less the twenty-first, was suspicious of Aristotle’s great-souled man and suspicious of the subjects of elegies.  Auden negotiated those suspicions and struggled with them himself.  He couldn’t decide whether time would be generous enough to pardon writers for all their flaws as persons.  For this reason, he is the end of an elegiac tradition.

Poems about death don’t start or stop at elegy, but to write directly about death is to mythologize what cannot be comprehended.  This mythologizing is an extremely useful tool, but it should not be conflated with what’s true.  What we know about death is that a person, and eventually all persons, comes to a stop.  A person who joked, ate, drank, made love, worked, got angry, had conflicted emotions, took actions in the world—that person ended.  Auden says of Yeats that “he became his admirers.”  While this does describe how a major poet enters and influences the minds and lives of others, I doubt Auden thought of this as a kind of afterlife, and it avoids the fact of death itself.

John Donne writes about it best, with a good conscience if not exactly a modern one, “Any man`s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”  From the standpoint of those of us who continue to live, death is exactly that diminishment that Donne describes.  The other’s death makes our own death not a distant possibility or a mythologized state, but an inevitable reality, the syllogistic logic that says: all men are mortal, Caius is a man, therefore Caius is mortal.  Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich is reminded of this and denies that he is Caius.  The gap between logic and experience is a huge one, but for Donne, that gap doesn’t exist.  And, to read him the way he wished to be read is to feel that gap vanish as you read.

Nonetheless, we cannot imagine death itself.  We cannot imagine the end of our being ourselves.  We can, though, imagine the effects a life has on others even past death.  What Brodsky complained of in poets, writing their elegies about themselves, may not be such a bad thing, or at least not an unproductive one.  It is possible that all poems are elegies for their poet.  We expect poems to have an effect on readers, and poets hope to continue to exist by creating that effect.  But, this is also a form of mythologizing.  The poem is not the poet.  It is analogous to a belief that if you are buried and a tree takes nourishment from your corpse, you somehow continue to live in the tree—a not-very-reassuring thought.

In mathematics, the invention of the zero to stand for nothing allowed for levels of calculation not previously available.  Naming something through language, however, does not mean we know anything about what’s been named, and attempting even to name non-existence is to be reminded how inadequate language is to fact.  Poetry is no more adequate to the fact of death than any other form of language, but paradoxically poets are drawn to addressing it.  Death is unspeakable, but we somehow continue to speak of it.

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