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Michael Robbins

The Work and Play of Mourning

Poems of grief.

A time to mourn, says the Preacher. It is one of the basic human (and probably not only human) purposes under heaven. Grief's representation and enactment have been primary functions of poetry since the beginning, where it levels heroes and kings. Achilles, grieving for Patroclus, desecrates Hector's corpse; Priam, grieving for Hector, places himself at Achilles' mercy to recover the body. Gilgamesh, grieving for Enkidu,

… covered, like a bride, the face of his friend,
like an eagle he circled around him.
Like a lioness deprived of her cubs,
he paced to and fro, this way and that.
[tr. Andrew George]

But mourning is twofold:

For his friend Enkidu Gilgamesh
did bitterly weep as he wandered the wild:
"I shall die, and shall I not then be as Enkidu?
Sorrow has entered my heart!"

When we turn to poetry in our grief, whether as reader or composer, well—it's also Mar garet we mourn for.

George Puttenham, in The Art of English Poesy, discerns yet another facet of "poetical lamentation":

Lamenting is altogether contrary to rejoicing: every man saith so, and yet it is a piece of joy to be able to lament with ease and freely to pour forth a man's inward sorrows and the griefs wherewith his mind is surcharged. This was a very necessary device of the poet and a fine: besides his poetry to play also the physician, and not only by applying a medicine to the ordinary sickness of mankind, but by making the very grief itself (in part) cure of the disease.

The poem transmutes the grief, in part, into cure. The making of the poem, and the reading of it, effect the work of mourning, which for Freud was to enable the abandonment of the lost object and an identification with a new one—in this case, the poem itself. As Susan Howe puts it in "The Disappearance Approach," a poem on the loss of her husband: "Sorrows have been passed and unknown continents approached."

A selection from Howe's poem appears in Jeffrey Yang's idiosyncratic anthology Time of Grief: Mourning ...

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