Some time ago I wrote an article for Hello Grief about grief and music. The article received a number of comments and lists of additional songs that have helped others on their grief journey. This response has emboldened me to share what, for me and others I know, is a similar power for healing that can be found in poetry.
Poetry is not for everyone, but it works for me. Like lyrics in a song (which is poetry set to music), it can speak to the heart in ways that prose cannot.
I once read a poem at a Comfort Zone Camp Saturday night bonfire, where we say good by to loved ones lost. The poem’s title is “Lost” and is based on a Native American legend of advice from an elder to a youth. Later that evening, a teen with Down’s Syndrome asked me if she could read it at the Sunday memorial service. “I often feel lost since daddy died in the tower,” she said, “and the words helped.” I was incredibly touch when she read it.
Mary Oliver, one of our poet laureates, writes, “Poetry is prayer, it is passion and music, it is beauty, comfort, it is agitation, declaration, it is thanksgiving…Often poetry is the gate to a new life…It brings new thoughts or welcome remembrance of old ones. It offers simple pleasure, complicated joy, and even, at times, healing.”
Of course poetry is really meant to be heard and not just read. If you want to explore whether or not poetry is for you, I suggest going to YouTube, and searching the word “poetry.”* If you like it, then go to the library or book store, and check out an author that spoke to you. Some will make you laugh or smile, others will touch the sad part of you, and a few will open your eyes and heart to life.
Here’s a taste from poems that speak to me on my grief journey. I hope they will speak to you as well.
Lost – David Wagoner (To me, the message of this poem has been “Stand still” – quiet down – it may be different for you).
Stand still. The trees and the bushes beside you
are not lost. Where ever you are is called Here,
and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
you are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
where you are. You must let it find you.
The Dead – Billy Collins1 (I read this in the local paper the day after 9/11)
The dead are always looking down on us they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats
of heaven as they row through eternity.
They watch the top of our heads moving on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them.
Which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait like parents for us to close our eyes.
Heavy – Mary Oliver2 (Written after the death of her life-long partner)
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
I went closer,
and I did not die.
had His hand in this,
as well as friends.
Still I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,
was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It is not the weight you carry
but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
When you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?
Have you heard
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?
How I linger
to admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind and maybe
roses in the wind,
The sea geese on the steep waves,
to which there is no reply?
When Death Comes –Mary Oliver (Reminds me to make the most of life, and of my mother and others who made the most of out of their lives)
When death comes
Like the hungry bear in autumn,
When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
To buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
When death comes like the measle pox;
When death comes
Like an iceburg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it is over I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made my life something particular and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
If poetry also speaks to you, and has helped you in your grief journey, please share with me and the group as a comment below.
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*On YouTube, check out the Geraldine Dodge Poetry link for exceptional poetry readings by some of the world’s most recognized modern poets.
1 Sailing Alone Around the Room -2001
2 Thirst -2006