Mary Jo Bang Examines Grief’s Poetic Form, the Elegy

April 10, 2008 at 7:05 PM EDT
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Mary Jo Bang is professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University. Her fifth book, "Elegy," which won of the National Book Critics Circle Award, examines the pain and grief following the death of her son. She shares two poems from the collection.

I’m Mary Jo Bang and I live in St. Louis, where I teach at Washington University. I’m a professor of English and director of the creative writing program. And I’m also a poet.

How Beautiful

A personal lens: glass bending rays
That gave one that day’s news
Saying each and every day,

“Just remember you are standing
On a planet that’s evolving.”
How beautiful, she thought, what distance does

For water, the view from above or afar.
In last night’s dream, they were back again
At the beginning. She was a child

And he was a child.
A plane lit down and left her there.
Clod whitening the white sky whiter.

Then a scalpel cut her open for all the world
To be a sea.

In 2004, my son, Michael, died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. Here is a picture I took of him when he was younger. Initially, I didn’t think about the fact I was writing an elegy. I was writing a poem. It came out of morning. Only after I had written quiet a few of these did I find there is this form and it is called elegy. I saw what it was doing for me. I couldn’t help think why elegy has been so persistent a form since the beginning of poetry until the present moment. I think it does many things. Primarily it distract the poet for a moment, from a state of exquisite grief.

We think about Emily Dickinson and many of her poems could be elegy. Her famous poem, “After great pain formal feeling comes.”

You need to know something about that state to write words like that. And I began to see something I was doing as well. I was distracting myself by doing what I do — write poems and found it as a way of escaping this state of exquisite suffering.

The Role of Elegy

The role of elegy is
To put a death mask on tragedy,
A drape on the mirror.
To bow to the cultural

Debate over the anesthetization of sorrow,
Of loss, of the unbearable
Afterimage of the once material.
To look for an imagined

Consolidation of grief
So we can all be finished
Once and for all and genuinely shut up
The cabinet of genuine particulars.

The other thing for me was this continuing conversation I’m having with my son. We were very close and um the idea of not ever speaking to him again was unacceptable.

And so this was a way to keep talking. Even then he was an excellent reader of poetry even though he had not studied poetry at all. He had an intuition as to what a good poem was and understood poetry that was fairly difficult. Sometimes I would hear him over my shoulder say, “I don’t get it, Mom.” I had to correct it so it would be something he’d understand.

Instead there’s the endless refrain
One hears replayed repeatedly
Through the just ajar door:
Some terrible mistake has been made.

What is elegy but the attempt
To re-breathe life
Into what the gone one once was
Before he grew to enormity.

Come on stage and be yourself,
The elegist says to the dead. Show them
Now -after the fact –
What you were meant to be:

The performer of a live song.
A shoe. Now bow.
What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell.