When you think of people who are useful, poets probably aren’t high on your list. After all, who needs poetry? (Well, I do, but that isn’t typical, I realise ) And yet, when there is sorrow, or great joy, or tragedy, or high emotion of almost any kind — a birth, a death, a marriage — what do we want? Words. In the right order. Poetry…
My sisters are always talking me in to things. I have three, which means I’m often over my head in one thing or another. Today, it’s poetry. And yes, I know all my education is in poetry(most of it, anyway). But despite the common perception, poets don’t really write much ‘occasional’ poetry these days.
It used to be that poets were commissioned at all rites of passage. The celebration of birth, the grief of loss. Personal & political, poetry served them both. War beginning? The poet pens a blessing. War over? Another sings in joy. Part of any self-respecting poet laureate’s job was to write poems for every occasion. Hence the term ‘occasional poetry.’
We don’t do that so much these days. Unless you’re my family, where death is marked with words. Too often mine. Let people hear you’re a poet, and lose a loved one, and you begin to have value. At least of a sort. Besides, when it’s your sister’s childhood friend’s brother (not as tenuous a connection as it may appear), from the family that lived once upon a time in your own empty house, how can you refuse?
So here I am: trying to fit words to the shape of a stranger’s life. A man whose life is as unfamiliar as the shores of death. I don’t know how, really, to pay respect to the unfamiliar dead. My own dead were hard enough to mourn. It took me years to write about my father, my mother.Wondering why words always fail when we need them most.
Tomorrow, I will be offering my own far too inadequate voice for the inchoate grief of a family I have not known in many years. But today, I am thinking — as I discard one hesitant line after another — of the thousands of years poets have sat at words, written on clay, papyrus, scroll & stone. Bearing up to the occasion. This one so very sad.