The Elegy: Form and Function

by Tracy Youngblom

For a long time now, I have been interested in elegies–broadly speaking, poems of loss. Perhaps being drawn to that type of poem says more about me than about poetry in general, but there is a rich history of the poetic elegy that informs our writing and reading today.

Beginning with the Greeks, the elegy was both a form and a type of poem. Originally, elegies were metrical poems written in response to death. Though form varied throughout time, the elegy retained its function: a poem responding to a death. The most famous of those traditional poems in the English language include Milton’s Lycidas, Jonson’s On My First Sonne, Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! These poems vary in structure, but they follow a pattern nonetheless, a formalization of the process of loss: they begin in lament, then idealize the dead through praise, then end with some form of consolation. The formalized stages, however, don’t steal any of the life from the poems. They often sing with images and sentiments that, even centuries later, we can feel tingle along the nerves. Consider these lines from Gray’s poem:

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

No, death is final, the poem implies, in its tone and in its message, and that is why the elegy remains a vital part of poetry. Death unites us, whether we like it or not.

Contemporary writers of course depend on the elegy and put it to their own uses. The strict presentation of loss in stages is no longer required, but many writers have written whole collections of elegies: Marie Howe’s What the Living Do; Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy; Grace Shulman’s The Broken String. Individual poems come to mind as well: Roethke’s Elegy for Jane, Lowell’s For the Union Dead. My guess is that anyone who identifies herself as a poet has written an elegy at one time or another.

Loss takes many forms: people, places, ideals. Death isn’t always necessary to mourn, to grieve. I think of Bishop’s famous villanelle, The Art of Losing. I am interested, then, in the elegy as a poem that tries to make loss visible, in all its specificity. The lyric form that has emerged and re-emerged in American poetry seems an ideal vehicle for poems of this type, since moments, more than days or weeks, stick with us and arise out of the complex weave of memory and sensation. In a lyric moment, feeling and sensation predominate. Time ceases to compel. The image becomes the symbol of deep emotion, not always, but often, deep loss.

In my own work, the elegy has played a unique role. For the past 10 years, I’ve been working on a series of persona poems in the voice of Eve. That voice has become my vehicle for exploring layers of loss present in this swirling mix of technology and sound bites we call the 21st century. My perspective on this is more communal than individual, which aligns with the vision of such elegists as Rilke and Paul Celan. By relying on a figure from myth, I am able to explore loss in a fuller context, as part historical, part personal, wholly inevitable. The tensions of belief and unbelief, of flesh and spirit, of life and afterlife, originate from the Judeo-Christian worldview and permeate not only my individual consciousness, but this society’s as well. These tensions are inward and outward, structural: we are all, literally, framed by this story, just as this story frames us, our individual lives.

So my personal interest in the elegy and in the myths that have shaped our culture carries over, here, to my selection of poems for this issue. The work here offers a smattering of possibilities for the flexibility of the elegy; all these poems are personal but all, also, reach outward. Broken relationships, the ache of longing for those lost to us (including ourselves) are situations so familiar that the personal by definition is communal. I hope these resonant poems touch readers, who may take up the pen and write their own stories of loss, the cord that binds us tightly to each other.

Selected Poetry

Rhodes by Marit Ericson
That Morning As We Slept In Our First House Together by Justin Hamm
When I’m Gone by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
All Those Lovely Rugs by Anne Minoff