At The Los Angeles Review of Books, Amy Gerstler writes about how elegy creates a space in which grief and mourning can occur. As death is increasingly hidden in Western society and grieving consigned to the private rather than public sphere, poetry gives us permission to express our grief and to remember the dead. Gerstler discusses how Edward Hirsch's Gabriel--a book-length elegy for the poet's son--approaches the work of mourning and resists the glorification of the dead by constructing a complicated and nuanced portrait of the deceased. Hirsch mourns his son through poetry, and he also humanizes him.
The successful elegist may create portraits not just of the deceased in their complexity and vitality, but also of their time, milieu, struggles, and relationship to their elegist and/or the world. The elegist may also create a map of grief itself, its wrenching particularities and historical resonances, and the stubborn resistances to language that real anguish reveals.
Elegy is both artifact and illumination of “the work of mourning,” which is incredibly important, persistent, and I would say noble human work. The phrase is Freud’s, from his famous essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” and Edward Hirsch quotes it as part of the “elegy” entry in A Poet’s Glossary, a readable, mightily erudite single-volume encyclopedia of every poetry-related term you’ve ever heard, and a few you never dreamed existed.In defining elegy, Hirsch writes, “It ritualizes grief into language and thereby makes it more bearable.” (He is careful not to credit poetry with the impossible, writing not “bearable” but merely “more bearable.”)
Lack of shared ceremony around grievous loss is oft-cited as a reason elegiac poetry is now more crucial than ever in Western societies. According to this line of thinking, our ability to mourn effectively and collectively has deteriorated with the erosion of shared traditions and beliefs, and the loss of communal rituals and forms. It may be one of elegy’s most important missions to address that growing lack, to remind us that forms and time for mourning were once embedded in our culture because we actually need them.