So, cautiously, you emerge from a London lockdown, or maybe a Durham one, blinking at the sun, and the first question is: who’s in line for all the cash you’ve saved not going out for two months? A hairdresser for sure, a bartender would be good, maybe a physiotherapist after the long confinement, and who knows? Perhaps a personal trainer? But you can be sure the one person you’re not going to need is a poet. Right? Does anyone ever, actually, need a poet?
Which is why, however little poetry there is in money, there’ll always be even less money in poetry. Like the handbag dog, it was invented as a plaything for the rich and educated, a gewgaw never intended for anything as base as trade. Poetry was, for centuries, mostly a game of wit and peacockery for the over-leisured or those pretending to be; a diversion based on ancient narrative techniques designed to make long stories or songs easier to remember before writing, or even paper, were things. And, although 18th century social aspirants like Alexander Pope tried to monetise verse, poetry was only really democratised in the early 20th century after the 1870-80 Education Acts spawned a first generation of literate poor. The voice of the working class finally found metrical form but never the elusive brass farthing.
Financially savvy poets set their words to music and became rock stars but, every now and again, there are times in our lives when music just feels cheap or manipulative and no prose is adequate. Times when our emotions are overwhelming and we struggle to find an art form that actually reflects the power of our feelings. Then, poetry, in the economy of language, the sparseness, the grasp for simple essence, creates holes, spaces for memories and context to slip in, fashioned by its audience as much as its creator. It somehow touches us by giving us less; allowing us to be more within it. Some experiences are so universal and yet so personal that only poetry can get close. Love. Yes. That’s one of them, but loss. Especially loss.
Nothing does death like poetry. Tragedy is its stock-in-trade. A time of war, revolution or pestilence is a payday for poets. At every graveside, at each chapel lectern, suddenly everyone needs a poet. A scrap of paper is unfolded and someone else’s words tumble out; because no words you find yourself will ever encapsulate the love, the person, the life that’s gone.
Poetry, without the music, has a gravitas all of its own, it’s rare enough to sound important and says so much by saying so little. When master of the tear-jerk comedy Richard Curtis, had to face the funeral in his Four Weddings script, he didn’t reach for lyrical Joni Mitchell but pukka poet
W.H. Auden. “He was… My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought
that love would last forever: I was wrong.”
Every poet knows it and every one worth their salt has attempted the
abstract encomium, the eulogy to the unknown dead person, the mention no-names, no specifics, one-size fits all, blankity blank, ‘fill-name-in-here whom now we mourn.’ From Shakespeare, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, Nor the furious winter’s rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.” to e e (no relation to Dominic) cummings’s “and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart / i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)”, they’ve all worked the graveyard shift. It’s not an easy gig either. Can you think of a full rhyme for the word “gone”?
Right now, for an unprecedented number of us (the highest per capita in the world), in the easing of lockdown, courtesy of the Dominic Cumming’s scandal soother, there is no jolly trip to the beach or furious protest. Right now unparalleled numbers of us bury our dead. Right now the demand for poetry, to grasp for a semblance of what grief means, is at its zenith. Right now, with 60,000 excess deaths above the seasonal norm, we are little more than a nation in mourning.
Some of us will find poems to address our dead: “You left us peaceful memories. Your love is still our guide, And though we cannot see you, You are always at our side.” Others will talk as the dead: “Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped into the next room…” Still others will acknowledge the
legacy: “Not, how did they die, but how did they live?/ Not, what did they gain, but what did they give?/ These are the units to measure the worth/ Of a person as a person, regardless of birth.”
But sadness tinges all the poems and the saddest thing about almost all funeral poems is that they are a trick; at the sort of celebration you’d never book a magician for. They are pretty gift paper wrapped around a turd, a lie made saccharine, because almost all are only in the second stage of grief (the one that comes after shock): denial. A denial of loss. Auden’s Funeral Blues and Roger McGough’s Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death are rare exceptions.
A funeral poem is like a brief exercise in cold reading, DIY Mediumship; exploiting the grief of the audience, summoning up an afterlife, putting words in the dead’s mouth and using vague but powerful sounding statements, which could apply to anybody, to encourage the listener to supply the context and believe they see the specifics in their lost loved one. It is smoke and mirrors.
Most funeral poems conjure an afterlife in the form of a posthumous sentience, “I am not gone, only sleeping” or as a heavenly continuation or, for the less spiritual, an eternity in the memories, or the hearts, of the living. Even Robert Test’s totally rational poem in praise of organ donation is called Remember Me – I Will Live Forever. Like a drunk standing up at an AA meeting with a Special Brew in hand, the funeral poem is a simple disavowal of the one fact that is in front of everybody. Death is final, it’s just about the clearest finality we have.
Almost none of the hundreds of poems that will come up, when someone is asked to “say something” and Googles “Poem for a funeral”, will actually address the dead elephant in the room: the “loved one” is gone, finished, never coming back. No ghostly hand will take your hand. No windblown field of wheat will echo the sigh and lost breath. No eyes will appear in the twinkling of the stars. Your sister, mother, father, brother, teacher, lover is never, ever coming back. Everything in your life changed the moment they stopped breathing and it will hurt, really hurt – and for as long as you live, the memory of them will never be just a happy one, because it will always always sting, maybe less over time but it will never go.
With the most devastating citizen death toll this country has seen in a century, one the Prime Minister claims to be “proud” of, there’s not a person in the land who has not either lost someone or felt the need to comfort someone they know who is grieving. With just 5% of the country sporting
antibodies for Covid-19 at this point there are many many more deaths on the horizon. There are no words which will make this feel better, which will stop the pain. You’re not going to need a poet, you’ll need a hairdresser and, even more, a bartender.
In memory of Sue Ward Brill 1931-2020 poet, writer, actress, mother.
(who would have been disappointed at the lack of jokes)