RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In honor of Poetry Month this April, we've been sampling new anthologies. And today: "The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing."
It's a project poet Kevin Young took on after the sudden death of his own father - when Young looked for, but couldnt find, such a collection. Early in the book, Kevin Young includes a poem that has special meaning to him because it was read at his father's funeral. It's W.H. Auden's "Funeral Blues."
Mr. KEVIN YOUNG (Editor, "The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing"): (Reading) Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone. Silence the pianos and with muffled drum, bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. Let aero planes circle, moaning, overhead, scribbling on the sky the message, He is Dead.
MONTAGNE: If you just heard even those first few lines, you get the idea of the moment, or the first moments, of when a loved one has gone.
Mr. YOUNG: And I think thats a real part of grief that we sometimes aren't able to talk about, and I think that poetry talks about perhaps better than anything else. It's able to capture a moment, a feeling -perhaps a fleeting feeling - and even make - as that poem does - music out of it.
MONTAGNE: Hmm. There is a poem entitled "Grief," by Stephen Dobyns. I'd like you to read the first stanza because it's an exquisite rendition of emptiness.
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah.
(Reading) "Grief," by Stephen Dobyns. Trying to remember you is like carrying water in my hands a long distance across sand. Somewhere, people are waiting. They have drunk nothing for days.
MONTAGNE: Is there something about the poem that makes it a perfect medium to express sorrow and grief?
Mr. YOUNG: I think so. The best poems are precise about a feeling. A poem can be both blunt - it can just say it straight out. And it also can say, you know, stop all the clocks, do not go gentle into that good night. It can plead in a way that we may wish, but we are not able to. And I think that the ability to be direct and say it full out, but also make a music out of it, make a metaphor, make meaning, is really what a poem does best.
MONTAGNE: There are a number of poems in here about children dying. And one of the most crushingly sad one is by David Wojahn, titled "Written on the Due Date of a Son Never Born."
Mr. YOUNG: Yes.
(Reading) Echinacea, bee balm, aster, trumpet vine. I watch your mother bend to prune, water sluicing silver from the hose. Another morning you will never see. Summer solstice, dragonflies flare, the un-petaled rose. Six a.m., and already she's breaking down, hose flung to the sidewalk where it snakes and pulses in a steady, keening glitter, both hands to her face. That much I can give you of these hours. That much only, fists and blossom forged by salt, trellising your wounded helixes against our days. Tell us how to live for we are shades, facing, caged, the chastening sun. Our eyes are scorched and lidless. We cannot bear your light.
Mr. YOUNG: That's a beautiful poem. It's so - it names something that Im not sure I'd seen in a poem before. And I think that experience is shared by more people than we wish to admit. And I think it's - perhaps Im wrong - but in that naming it, I find some consolation.
MONTAGNE: You're starting this collection partly out of wanting something that you didnt have when your own father died. You write in the introduction that later, you found that he had clipped and saved a bit of a poem or a few lines, and they're so sweet. And the two lines are, if equal affection cannot be; let the more loving one be me.
There is, included in this collection, a poem in the words of a parent who is alive but looking ahead to the inevitable. It's a sweet poem and almost an amusing one. It's called "Remember Me," by Hal Sirowitz.
Mr. YOUNG: Yeah, it's a great poem.
(Reading) "Remember Me." Every weekend, your mother and I tour cemetery plots, Father said, the way most people visit model homes. We have different tastes. I like jutting hills overlooking traffic, whereas she prefers a bed of flowers. She desires a plot away from traffic noise. I let her have her way in death to avoid a life of hell. But when you light memorial candles for us, arrange hers in the center of a flowery tablecloth. But place mine on the windowsill. Dont say any prayers for me, just wet your finger and pass it through the flame. Remember me by the tricks I have taught you.
MONTAGNE: Hmm. Maybe only a parent to a child...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: ...could, you know, could basically get away with, let me help you out. Let me give you some advice for when Im gone.
You know, I want to end with a poem by Philip Larkin. It's called "Trees."
Mr. YOUNG: "The Trees." The trees are coming into leaf like something almost being said. The recent buds relax and spread their greenness as a kind of grief. Is it that they are born again and we grow old? No. They die, too. The yearly trick of looking new is written down in rings of grain. Yet still the unresting castles thresh in full-grown thickness every May. Last year is dead, they seem to say. Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
MONTAGNE: There's such a burst of hope in that.
Mr. YOUNG: There is - yet still. You know, that - I think - is one of the feelings that these poems capture, that movement is part of the journey of grief and healing.
MONTAGNE: Poet Kevin Young. He's editor of the collection "The Art of Losing." You can hear all the interviews in our poetry series, at NPR.org.