Death Poetry During a Pandemic

I teach poetry—not writing poetry but reading it. Students in my class start with a study of sound and rhythm in hip hop. Then we turn to Shakespeare’s sonnets, opening with the familiar summer’s-day “Sonnet 18,” a poem that passes for a love poem but one that keeps its best love for itself: “So long as men can breathe, and eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” How long is that?

It’s not exactly eternal life. During the pandemic, Shakespeare’s poems about how art can live forever—“whatever forever / is” (as Bukowski qualifies art’s “eternity”)—began to seem like an evasion of the question of immortality of the soul.

Death, in the class I designed, appears only in relation to art. After Shakespeare but before Gwendolyn Brooks, I teach one of the most widely-read poems of the Victorian period: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s book-length elegy for a friend he loved very much and whom he lost young. In Memoriam A.H.H. considers the many moods of grief and still speaks—seriously, intimately—to some students each semester. In class, however, we focus on how loss is refracted through poetry.

That’s the class as I designed it, and as it’s developed over the past half-dozen years. The course, like a long relationship, moves between what always happens and what happens once and changes everything. In the classroom, I focus on the poetry, but sometimes my students and I recognize that we share a world as well as a text. Last spring, when we encountered a novel virus with the rest of the world, our engagement with Victorian death culture happened in a suddenly-online classroom. The hair-ring and dead-baby-elegy atmosphere didn’t seem so alien, and Tennyson’s In Memoriam was on my nightstand (as, reportedly, it was on Queen Victoria’s) because when we moved the desk into the bedroom to facilitate homeschooling, my nightstand became my desk.

What I have loved about teaching In Memoriam is its vivid depiction of a divine order that looks, from the evidence of the senses, like wanton—careless, planless, exuberant—destruction. It’s a version of the perceived universe equally evident to those who believe there is meaning behind what they see and to those who don’t. In a 1936 essay, T.S. Eliot called the poem “not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt.”

When I teach the class at Loyola, I dramatize the crisis of faith by declaiming aloud the famously doubting parts of the poem, like where Nature, red in tooth and claw, cries “I bring to life, I bring to death: / The spirit does but mean the breath!”—etymologically true, and personal extinction in a nutshell—or, less famous but still horrible, the part where the poet thinks time is a maniac scattering dust. Time, here, is not figured as a Father or an hourglass or even the sun rising and setting, just a senseless destroyer of created things like the bad guy in the 2019 film Endgame, who snaps his fingers and turns half the creatures in the universe to ashes.

In spring of 2020, one of my students described In Memoriam as a super bummer to read—but, I think, with a sense that it was not a bad poem to read when the cases in New Orleans were rising every day.

I choose poems for class with an eye to their connection with the history of poetry in English, but each student also picks a poem to share with the class. The poems they choose are sometimes the ones I used to teach in an anthology by Eavan Boland and Mark Strand, or ones they’ve read in other classes. Sometimes, students choose poems they’ve encountered outside the classroom context, where poetry is important because it connects to your life. William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul”) is a poem one can meet in a subreddit dedicated to personal development like “GetMotivated” or “selfimprovement.” When students teach elegies, conversation often shifts the question from how a poem engages with other poems to how it pushes us to engage with death.

In Memoriam does the self-conscious poetic work it’s supposed to do; it reflects on elegiac form, the sonnets of Shakespeare, and the mind-exploding impact of the newly discovered fossil record of one man’s place in the universe. It is also the great nineteenth century self-help manual on grief. It’s a book I have given to people dealing with mortal loss. But last spring, a student—in fact, one student in each section—brought another Tennyson poem to class: “Crossing the Bar.” No student had ever brought it in before.

This poem, famous for a few generations after Tennyson’s death, is one I have read a thousand times without being much moved, until now. The whole thing about elegy is that someone dies, and the poet makes a poem about it. The death in “Crossing the Bar” is the poet’s own, and “Crossing the Bar” offers itself to those who are left behind. It’s not so much an elegy as a reflection on what it means to die. In it, the sun is setting, and the poet is taking a one-way trip out on his boat. He wishes there to be no moaning at his death:

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

The tide only seems like it’s ebbing from the shore; really, the water is returning to the ocean. It suddenly seemed so godless to me that I teach my students “When I have fears that I may cease to be” (Keats on the fear of death) and “Do not go gentle into that good night” (Thomas on raging against the dying of the light), but never this poem, or one like it. I have told them that poetry is always about poetry, and death, and often also sex, and I have offered it to them as a form of language that can help them recognize complicated things, but I have not equipped them to see how language might connect with the old and vital practice of preparing for death.

As soon as I put it like that to myself—that a poem might prepare the reader to die––I realized that students have made the connection on their own. I remembered another poem picked by student from a previous semester and which also resonates with the poet’s peaceful acceptance of death. By Charles Bukowski. I say to my poet friend: Bukowski. She says: misogynist. I say to my other poet friend, can I put him in my Tennyson essay? And she says: DO IT. In a 2005 New Yorker essay Adam Kirsch points out that

Bukowski accomplished something rare: he produced a large, completely distinctive, widely beloved body of work, something that few poets today even dream of. It is a testament to Bukowski’s genuine popularity that, at a time when most poetry books can’t be given away, his are perennially ranked among the most frequently stolen titles in bookstores.

The poem, “my vanishing act,” recalls an abandoned graveyard that “offered a generous cure to / the vicious hangover”—a place for the poet to go “when I got sick of the bar”:

through the grass I could see

the stones,

many were tilted

at strange angles

against gravity

as though they must


but I never saw one


although there were many of those

in the yard.

it was cool and dark

with a breeze

and I often slept there

I was never


This poem is also not exactly an elegy, insofar as an elegy mourns a mortal loss and seeks consolation. The death is, again, the poet’s own; the consolation this poem offers is how to move toward death rather than past it. (When the speaker returns to the bar, he is greeted with “we thought you died!” and he offers himself as the graveyard to their sense of life or mortality: “they needed me/to make themselves feel/better.”) A vicious hangover offers the peace of death. The gravestones are characterized not by their permanence, but their balance as they sink gradually. If Tennyson offers us a boat ride to God, Bukowski gives us a graveyard to sleep it off in, unmolested in the cool dark.

When I learned of Eavan Boland’s death a few days after it happened, I was teaching one of her poems in our last Zoom class. The course is supposed to prepare students (not to die but) to encounter new poems. So I chose one of the Poetry Foundation’s Poems of the Day: Eavan’s  “A Woman Without A Country.” In it, a copper engraver etches (cuts, incises) the image of a woman starving in the Irish famine, “the little / Pitiless tragedy of being imagined.” Students were annotating the poem with relevant historical references on a Google doc, and I was looking for a Wikipedia-style description of her importance as a feminist poet when the internet turned up, instead, the Stanford notice of her death.

It hit me like I’m a person, and I could not think of one way to connect it to the class. I mentioned her death to my students, but I led a discussion about the responsibilities of the artist as raised by the poem and not about the loss of the person who taught me to teach poetry. After, I said to my friend the art historian: Her death didn’t feel relevant. She asked: Is it ever?

As per Auden’s elegy to Yeats we’d read in the class before—familiar to me from Eavan’s anthology—the death of the poet was kept from her poems.

I planned for my students to be able to read Eavan’s poems, and they proved they could. I asked them to reflect on the relevance of the poetry we were reading, and they taught me how. I teach the same poems over and over, and often the students teach them back to me. When the poems become too deeply stained with experience, I retire them. There are always more.

Sarah Allison is an associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans and the author of Reductive Reading: A Syntax of Victorian Moralizing (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).  Her writing has also appeared in Public Books and the New Orleans Review.


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