Every poem [is] an epitaph. – T.S. Eliot
(This is an excerpt from Death Poems Russ Kick)
Name any well-known poet from any age, any country. He or she wrote at least one poem about death, most likely several poems. I can basically guarantee it. Death is one of the most common themes in the entirety of poetry. Whether it’s a lamentation for a loved one or a public figure, a reflection on their own upcoming appointment with the grave, a meditation on the nature of death, or perhaps what happens afterward, every poet has found inspiration—sometimes welcome, often not—in the fate we all have in common. It provides a lens through which to examine life, changing everything else by its looming, inevitable presence. Our time here is brief; this play has a limited engagement, and there are no do-overs. Everything we do counts. Time is always running out, and the poets know that this casts life in an entirely different light than if we were immortal.
Death also provides a profound mystery—the ultimate mystery, really—to be examined, prodded, hypothesized about, potentially unraveled (but probably not). Poets love a mystery, and there is none bigger. In an interview, the great Anne Sexton said: “You see, I can explain sex in a minute, but death—I can’t explain.”
Finally, death provides a taboo, which poets love. It’s disturbing, not to be talked about. But poetry specializes in taboos. It provides a way to speak about the unspeakable. The social rules of normal discourse, even the social rules of other types of writing, don’t apply to poetry. By approaching things obliquely, by using language in a nonordinary—you could even say “magic”—way, by short-circuiting the rules of dialog and sneaking underneath the barbed wire of our rational, logical minds, poetry can address with impunity any topic it wants to. “Tell all the Truth,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “but tell it slant.”
Given the universality of death in poetry, you would expect to find a lot of anthologies collecting poetry on the topic. Themed collections of poetry are extremely popular. Bookshelves sag with anthologies of cowboy poetry, Japanese poetry, poems about the ocean, poems on motherhood, baseball, spirituality, music, food… The number of books that collect love poetry is beyond calculating. And, as I write this, you can choose from more than ten anthologies of dog poetry in print. (Cats have around the same number.) But no one has brought together a big selection of the wide-ranging poems about death. There are several anthologies of poems specifically about loss, mourning, and grieving, and some of them are specifically marketed as providing readings for funeral services, or as a way to help the bereaved cope with their loss. There is a small omnibus of poems about murder, and you won’t have trouble finding anthologies of war poems.
Just why it has been mostly ignored is puzzling, but my guess is that the taboo of death comes into play here. Maybe it strikes publishers and anthologists as morose. Maybe the topic of death is considered too much of a buzzkill. Putting together anthologies about personal loss and grieving is a psychological service. Creating anthologies about war is an historical and social service. But creating an anthology about death in general—in all its aspects—well, that’s just bleak, right? Morbid. No, actually. Not at all. When you have many of the finest creative minds in history addressing one of the most important aspects of the human condition, you’re going to get riches—a revealing, finely wrought kaleidoscope of ideas, attitudes, and experiences.
You’re going to get Walt Whitman celebrating death as an important part of the richness of life. Lord Byron penning a beautiful epitaph for his beloved dog (there’s dogs and poetry again!). Emily Dickinson going for a carriage ride with Death, and Dylan Thomas pleading with his father to not go gentle into that good night. The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus ironically but accurately noting death’s role as a healer. The Nobel Prize-winning Modernist poet Wallace Stevens opining that “Death is the mother of beauty.” The decadent Charles Baudelaire reminding his lover that one day she’ll be a rotting corpse. Thomas Hardy—best known for his novels Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge—wryly writing about a widow and an ex-wife meeting over the grave of the man they had in common. American slaves singing of the holy glories to come, and the Irish singing about a man who comes back to life at his own wake. The ancient Indian holy text The Baghavad Gita explaining the immortality of our true essence. Biting epitaphs by Scotland’s Robert Burns. Wanda Coleman’s furious litany of innocent African Americans killed by police.
In this collection, several soldier-poets write of life in the trenches and on the battlefield, and Miranda Beeson offers an unexpected angle on 9/11. Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins cheekily wonders if death is closing in on him, while an earlier Laureate, William Stafford, writes about losing his grip while mountain climbing. The seventeenth-century Cavalier poet Robert Herrick ponders the death of trees, and, around 250 years later, Imagist poet Amy Lowell graphically describes killing flowers. Literary legend D.H. Lawrence uses the moon to form a pact with his dead beloved, while the always astonishing Edna St. Vincent Millay is relieved that her paramour died before their relationship could go sour. The recently departed Lucille Clifton addresses the unborn child she aborted at home, while Charlotte Brontë grieves for her younger sister Anne, killed by consumption. Todd Davis puts a rabbit out of its misery, and Linda Hogan comforts a horse who has lost her foal. Two of the poets here (Tichborne and Villon) wrote verse while waiting for their death sentence the following morning. Others imagine what Heaven or Hell might be like. Some poets can’t wait to die, while the unjustly overlooked Sara Teasdale loves life and nature so much that she doesn’t want to leave, even vowing to find a way back.
As you can tell, this collection ranges dramatically. It goes across all of history, from the ancients straight through to today. Across countries and languages, across schools of poetry. You’ll find a plethora of approaches—witty, humorous, deadly serious, tear-jerking, wise, profound, angry, spiritual, atheistic, uncertain, highly personal, political, mythic, earthy, and only occasionally morbid. Every angle you can think of is covered—the deaths of children, lost loves, funeral rites, close calls, eating meat, serial killers, the death penalty, roadkill, the Underworld, reincarnation, elegies for famous people, death as an equalizer, death as a junk man, death as a child, the death of God, the death of death…
This is a dazzling, largely unmined vein in poetry’s long history. I hope this collection captures a big cross section of that mosaic.