Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Poetry and death


One ought really to do philosophy only as a form of poetry - Wittgenstein

If there is one subject in this world that’s about as far removed from poetry as one can get it would have to be death. I’m thinking about all the clichés that surround death, the same old words (I’m sorry for your loss), the same old ceremonies (Ashes to ashes, dust to dust). After love is there a subject harder to say something new about? It’s probably a toss-up actually. And yet...

The Poetry Foundation archive alone contains 928 poems about “Death.” Compare that to 65 about “Birth and Birthdays,” 38 about “Infancy,” and 449 about “Youth and Childhood.” Relatedly, there are 445 about “Sorrow and Grieving”—most of the sorrow and grief in response to death—and 310 about “Growing Old,” a process that leads inexorably to being deceased. Even though a poem can contain any subject, one of poets’ favourite things to put in the container has historically been, and continues to be, death. – Kathleen Rooney, ‘Ghost hunting with the Dead Poets Society of America’, Poetry Foundation

It’s not a subject I’ve written much about to be honest. I’ve only lost two people who were close to me, my parents, and I was only present when my mother passed. There wasn’t much to see. I may even have been out of the room calling the doctor when it happened, but I don’t think so. I’ve never written about her death or my father’s. I couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say. Death is meaningless. It has no purpose. It is what happens when we no longer have any purpose.

What do you say when there’s nothing left to say, when everything that could be said has already been said? I had a friend once who lost a parent one week – I think it was her father – and her brother the next and I remember in the funeral parlour going to hug her after the death of her brother and saying, “You know, we’ll have to stop meeting like this.” I could have kicked myself. Not because I tried to be funny – I see no reason to be morbid at funerals – but because that was all I could think to say and I didn’t pull it off. I should’ve just hugged her and been done with it.

I didn’t write anything about her or her family nor did I write anything after attending a joint funeral of a mother and her son. I didn’t write anything after attending my first funeral although I can tell you who it was, Walter H., an old friend of my father’s. I was probably about ten when he died and I was desperately curious about the whole thing. I’d never been to a funeral before. Of course I was allowed to go to the graveside too – my dad was not the kind of father who felt the need to be overly protective and all my questions were answered openly and honestly – but I remember the feeling of being outside, an observer, detached from the events. If I was to memorialise that occasion for anything then it would have to be for my first poetic stirrings. I could list hundreds of times where an aspect of me has been able to look at events objectively if not exactly dispassionately. It took me about ten years to get around to writing about it although by then I had been to at least one other funeral and what we have here is a work of fiction rather than an attempt to accurately document the events:


My Father's hand was ice
and his stance militarily rigid.
Somehow that seemed appropriate.

A tear clung to an eye
but there was nothing there
to hold on to and it fell.
Somehow lapses in character
like this became acceptable.

The priest wore an ancient expression
and held a trilby.
That did not seem so right.

Looking round I kept coming on the same face
like a cliché‚ or an awkward question.

27 January 1980

ghost.jpg.w300h424 Poems are ghosts. They are not the events they describe or the thoughts they try to convey. They ‘live’ on for years, even centuries, after their writers have died, wandering the earth trying to find a human connection. Poems are unfinished business. I’m not going to go down the route of whether or not ghosts are real. There are those who believe passionately that they do just as there are those who believe passionately in the existence of extraterrestrials. But let’s say for the moment that they don’t, that when you’re dead you’re dead. What are ghosts but something a writer has dreamt up to keep the memory of a loved one alive? We prolong what we can. Some cultures mummify their dead and stick them in the corner, the ultimate extended family.

I’ve written before about my writing as a form of exorcism, a getting something out of my head and onto the page so that I can face it, deal with it and be done with it. I take thoughts and feelings that are invisible and make them visible, tangible even. There is a school of thought that purports that ghosts are not sentient but essentially memories that haven’t faded. Again, I have no real thoughts on the subject but in a poetic sense that works too.

Death is inevitable and a lot of beliefs and myths surrounding it exist to soften its effect on us. Like this one by Emily Dickinson:


I died for Beauty — but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining room —

He questioned softly “Why I failed?”
“For Beauty,” I replied —
“And I — for Truth — Themself are One —
We Brethren, are,” He said —

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night —
We talked between the Rooms —
Until the Moss had reached our lips —
And covered up — our names —

In this poem death is presented as a gradual thing, it’s something one settles into and complete erasure takes time. Even the reasons why this pair has died are ideals; they’ve not died of consumption or the pox, no, they’ve died for Truth and Beauty. These are poetic deaths. They are calm, untroubled, not wracked with guilt or pining for their past lives. They engage in civilised conversation – they have found common ground – and it’s only after years when the metaphorical moss obscures their names that they are truly forgotten. Death is not presented as a happy state but if that was the way we were to go it seems pleasant enough. This poem, of course, is completely in opposition to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus aphorism: ‘Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through.’

Of course that poem focuses on the deceased. Poems are, more often, written for the living, like this one by Wilfred Owen:


Move him into the sun —
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds —
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, — still warm, — too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

Again it’s a gentle piece. The dead is not suffering but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t suffered. He is, however, in every sense of the word ‘at rest’. What Owen here is looking at is the pointlessness of death. This man didn’t die for Truth or Beauty, Honour perhaps, but more likely for no good reason that he could think of. Most poetry is not about death per se but the effects of death on the living, its consequences and ramifications.

roubaud-jacques-01.1264416343 In 1983 the French poet Jacques Roubaud's wife Alix Cleo died at the age of 31 of a pulmonary embolism. The grief-stricken author responded with one brief poem (‘Nothing’), then fell silent for thirty months after which he produced the collection Some Thing Black in which he explores the many-edged forms of grief, mourning, bewilderment, emptiness, and loneliness that attend death. The death, having occurred in an instant of time, continues in him ("But inside me your death proceeds slowly, incomprehensibly"). He is not dying, not anymore than the rest of us, but to best understand something you need to experience it. He cannot physically die but he can allow an aspect of him to. How many times have you heard someone say something like, “It’s as if a part of me has died”? Of course a part of him, the greater him, the we-two-are-one-him has died. While acknowledging that "death calls for a poetry of meditation," what clearly frustrates Roubaud are the limitations of language and words to affect the biological reality. Poetry changes nothing. Not as far as the dead go. Rather, all that language can do is attempt to clarify the exactness of his grief and to recall precisely the image of her life and death. Here is one of the poems from the collection:


Your death goes on completing fulfilling itself.

Not just your death. dead you are. there’s no denying it. and how? no use.

No use the past, unreal unqualifiable time.

But inside me your death proceeds slowly

I always wake up in your voice your hand your smell

I always say your name your name inside me as if you were.

As if death had but frozen your fingertips, but had thrown a blanket of silence over us had stopped at some door.

And me on the other side incredulous.

I can understand how he felt: he’s a poet, he’s supposed to respond to things in poetry but suddenly poetry doesn’t feel up to the job. Even when he finished the book there is a feeling that he has been fighting with the lines.

The only death I’ve witnessed apart from my mother’s, although there was again very little to see, was the death of my last wife’s mother. She was in a hospital and had been unconscious all the time we were there but she was surrounded by her family, her four daughters, two sons, her husband and me. I can’t imagine I was the only in-law there but for the life of me I can’t recollect anyone else in the room apart from the aforementioned. Her last moments consisted of her daughters – two of whom were nursing sisters as it happened and had been pretty much left to their own devices by the hospital staff – monitoring her vitals and waiting for her to stop breathing, something the old woman doggedly refused to do for such an awful long time. We kept holding our breaths, all of us, instinctively, waiting on the pronouncement. In the end, of course, we always had to exhale and take one more breath. It felt like a competition:


At the very end
we all held our breaths

just waiting to see
which one of us could

hold theirs the longest.
It seemed only right

she should get to win
one last time before

she died.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

hospital Once she’d ‘won’ – she was a stubborn woman when she was alive, very much the matriarch, and getting her own way was important to her – we could all breathe normally, cry, hug each other and then there were practicalities to attend to, welcome distractions. Even then although I was there to bear witness to her passing I never saw death, only its reflection in the faces of those around me. It didn’t touch me. I was the poet; they were my fodder. Again, it was many years, before I wrote about it.

The death that affected me the most recently was the death of an infant. When the child died I don’t know as she was stillborn. I only found out when I received an e-mail from the mother, a girl I used to work with and was very fond of. Within a very short time of reading that she’d lost her daughter, who she’d named ‘Emma’, the poem was drafted:


(for Emma)

Still, a breath away from life,
a heartbeat away from breath,
still my baby lies

her frozen hand
reaching out
to receive

the gift that was
no longer
mine to give.

Still, everything is still,
until I cry her cry and
shatter that stillness


Wednesday, 28 January 2009

What makes this especially sad for me is that the baby never died. By that I mean the baby was never independently alive. It never lived and then died. And once she was removed from her mother any chance she had of living was taken away from her. I included this poem in my poetry collection This Is Not About What You Think and, to my reading (I am also a reader) this is the pivotal poem in the collection. It has also just been included in with a collection of poems about loss at Salamander Cove. You can read the rest here.

Many poets have been preoccupied with death in the past: Tennyson, Keats, Wordsworth, Plath. Usually this comes about because of exposure to death at an impressionable age. I’ve written so little about it because I was brought up to accept it as a part of life, no big deal really. Yes, I cried when my parents died. I used to cry when our cats died and I’ll probably even shed a tear or two when our cockatiel squawks his last, but that’s about it.

The funeral services I’ve been to have all been for Christians and when I’ve stood there taking it all in, as we poets do, there’s a scripture that always comes to my mind, 1 Thessalonians 4:13:

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.

grief Watching people who I know are aware of that scripture, who may well have even heard it read on the day, and seeing how they grieve has always puzzled me. For Christians, good Christians (and all of those I’ve seen buried or cremated would have liked to have thought of themselves as such), what is the big deal? Isn’t dying a good thing? Isn’t that when you get your reward for all the things you’ve had to endure in His name? Nah, I don’t get it. They’ve “fought the good fight ... finished the course [and] kept the faith”, now’s the time to pick up that “crown of righteousness” (1 Tim 4:7,8) – it should be a joyous time. Shouldn’t it?

It would seem that even the most fervently held beliefs shudder when faced with the great unknown. Because we might have it wrong. Even those of us who believe that death is simply non-existence don’t know for sure and so I can’t say how I’ll feel when lying on my own deathbed. Dying and death and not the same thing though. It’s the dying bit I’m not looking forward to.

I think apart from being an unavoidable topic, death has become an important metaphor for poets, an archetypal metaphor, one that that draws upon universal experiences: vehicles of light and dark, weather patterns, the seasons, the cycle of life and death. What you have to remember is that often when a poet is talking about death they’re actually referring to something else completely. I’ve described poetry before as explaining or describing one thing by talking about something else. Just what exactly does the expression ‘dead of night’ mean? Or ‘dead cert’?

Let me leave you with a poem about death that’s not about death.


The past must die.

It gets sick and has to die.
It dies one bit at a time
but in the end it has to.

It doesn’t have to because
the future has promised us
something better but rather

because it's simply its time.
I’m not saying that we should
forget all about our pasts.

No, it’s right and proper to
visit their graves every now
and then to mourn their passing.

But that’s all.

Friday, 22 May 2009


Jessica Bell said...

Wow. What a brilliant post! I had no idea you were a poet. Oh, wow, I'm so excited now. Do you give critiques at all? I'm looking for someone to take a look at a collection of mine which I want to enter into a chopbook contest. Would you be interested? My email is PLEASE! Gimme a buzz :o)

Art Durkee said...

Well, it's one of the eternal verities, so it's unavoidable. Like the Endless, Dream, Destiny, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire, Delirium (who used to be Delight), in Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" writings.

I've seen a lot of dead people, and a lot of people dying, or about to. Both of my parents, strangers, other friends and family. It's one of those things you can't avoid, "in the end," as everything dies. I think a lot of death poems are more profound than a lot of love poems precisely because the experience of being near death alters and hopefully deepens one's appreciation for life (some embrace, some flee), whereas most love poems are written by people still callow. Some of the best poems in the English language are poems regarding death; John Donne, Dylan Thomas, George Herbert, Wilfred Owen ("Strange Meeting" for example), among several others.

Titus said...

Brilliant meditation around the subject Jim, really enjoyed it.
My two best pieces are about my father's funeral and about the inquest into his death (car accident). But that may be more to do with my father than his death.

Because of Mr Cameron's experience, Jeremy Vine did one of his features on being present when someone dies on Radio 2 at lunchtime today. Matthew Parris was incredibly eloquent, and that coupled with the succession of ordinary people calling in meant I had to pull over and cry for a good five minutes. Worth a listen, if you can put up with Jeremy Vine.

Death is the ultimate parting, and you can never reach the person again. I cannot think of anything that moves me so much, so that is why, for me, it is the ripest of subjects for writing.

And in my previous incarnation I saw a lot of deaths, and a lot of aftermaths of those deaths, and have written a fair bit about them too.

And wow to Art. "Sandman" amongst my favourite books, ever.

Julie Kwiatkowski Schuler said...

A really enjoyable post. I have enjoyed your poems and ruminations. There is another great little blog that always posts quotes related to death.

Jim Murdoch said...

A good point about the difference between love poetry and death poetry there, Art, and as a general rule of thumb I agree. There are always the exceptions. At any other time in history Wilfred Owen would have been writing callow love poetry and would probably have been forgotten by now.

Death, or not so much death as its aftermath, has been on my mind for quite a few years now, Titus, ever since I’ve been working on this current novel. Its core issue is about being left and throughout the book I basically meditate on what it means to leave and to be the one left. What particularly interests me was the fact that the loss of my parents left a much smaller hole in my life than I expected. There is a lot of expectation that goes along with grief, what we expect we should feel and how people around us expect us to behave.

And, Julie, thanks for that link and for dropping by. I’ve subscribed to the site so I don’t forget to have a read through some of the older posts.

Dave King said...

I completely agree with the Wittgenstein quotation. I also thin k the reverse is equally true. During my early adolescence I got into philosophy and religion, found philosophy (as I came across it and understood it then) dreadfully dry and dull and transferred my interest totally to religion. Later, as for Wallace Stevens, poetry was to take its place. For me death is behind much great poetry, if only in the form of the impermanence of all things, and especially of beauty. I haven't written specifically on the death of an individual - yet - but it is there behind a lot of my work. I have two poems on the general them of death in the posting queue at the moment. I did much enjoy your selection.

Jim Murdoch said...

Death is inescapable, you’re right there, Dave, and I suspect that under other names a lot of our writing is about all the different kinds of death that we experience. I’ve always liked the expression, “In the midst of life we are in death,” it’s very poetic. I remember my dad trying to explain to me as a little boy that I was actually dying, “dying in Adam”, and I found it so hard to grasp. The way I understood it was that life was a kind of dying which, I suppose, is what he was saying. I’ve no fear of death. I don’t want to die if it’s going to hurt but if I die in my sleep that’s fine by me. I look forward to seeing what you have to say on the subject but in your own good time.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

The poem thinks when it
comes to an end --
that will be it! Death!
Four lines, a fifth
and then -- eternal oblivion!


The above got pub'd in alba.

It's both a poem, a joke, and my version of philosophy. And my take on death, I suppose.

Anybody who reads it encounters it alive (as the reader brings it to life). But once it has fallen under the inevitable erasures of time it will no longer have opportunity to live. Completely forgotten, shall there be consequence of its having existed?

I quite like your own poem/joke about your mother-in-law. It's playful and ironic, ought to evoke a knowing chuckle from someone who knew her (or someone who knew someone like that -- and who doesn't). I like that the playfulness is childlike -- a breath-holding contest! -- as death isn't something we can be wise about -- at least, beyond saying, "And me on the other side ..."

Jim Murdoch said...

Believe it or not, Glenn, about an hour ago I literally wrote some notes for a poem that referenced itself like that:

        I did not write this poem.
        I am reading this poem.
        I am reading the third …
        sorry … fourth line of this poem.

I’ve always liked poems like that. Not sure what I’ll do with this one (there’s another eight or nine stanza-things) but it might work out.

I can assure you though that there was nothing funny about waiting on that old woman dying. And yet, looking back, it’s impossible not to see the funny side of it. We knew her death was imminent and we all – there were about a dozen of us in the room – we all would hold our breaths so we could hear if she’s stopped breathing . . . and then she’d take another shallow breath and we’d hold our breaths. There was no discussion but you put a post in a room like that and he is just going to soak up the poetry: everything’s fodder. I remember thinking though: What the hell are hanging on for? She was the family matriarch and it really did feel like her saying, “I will damn well die when I’m good and ready and not a moment sooner. You hear me?”

Marcus Speh said...

jim, enjoyed this. a lot of my writing is focused on existentialist topics such as death. a lot of words are written to help people pretend death did not exist or isn't scary. i found you via Gabriel Orgrease. put your blog on my blogroll at and i'm looking forward to reading more from you. and i mean your novels. cheers from berlin, marcus

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Oh, I don't suppose anybody in that dying woman's room would have laughed. And I'm sure there are some who would still respond in horror to your poem. But if God cries, he must laugh, and at all sort of inappropriate times.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, Marcus. I do believe you’re my first Berliner, at least the first to make themselves known. Glad you found be through Gabe. He was one of the first to read and write about my first novel but for some reason never quite got round to the writing about the sequel. At one point he lost the book in that mountain of books that surrounds his desk. Have you ever seen a photo of it? How it all doesn’t come crashing about him I have no idea.

And, Glenn, it’s all to do with timing. Carol Burnett once said: "Comedy is tragedy plus time," although I remember the quote being used by a character in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours. The point is that no one would have thought about making jokes about the death of Kennedy or 9/11 or any other emotive disaster like that at the time but as we’re distanced from the event by time it becomes more and more acceptable to find the humour in the situation. And the thing about humour is that being funny isn’t always its agenda; it uses humour to make serious points.

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