Writing for the Dead


William Blake, The Resurrection: The angel rolling away the stone from the sepulchre, c. 1808

by Daniel Tobin


Whether to the advantage or disadvantage of the present, it was an insight of great prescience when at the onset of the world’s second brutal upheaval in two decades T. S. Eliot composed the phrase “this twittering world” for “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets. Grave as the present moment was, one has to presume that for Eliot a world characterized by empty chatter (though prompted by the needful exchanges of birdcalls) defined a condition much more encompassing than the present pass of history. For a poet of such considered metaphysical and artistic awareness, a world characterized by twitters expressed one sadly ubiquitous condition of an existential and ultimately spiritual mise-en-scene. The twittering world was not ultimately reality at all, but rather an ever-pervading source of distraction from the really real. The goal, even in the midst of its bewilderingly inescapable static, was to sufficiently quiet the interference and to begin to listen for something coming out of the silence, which for Eliot was ideally “the silence of God.” That silence filled the emptiness with genuine presence and pregnancy—as if all the noise of the world might designate a kind of sonic contour.  Coming to its edge, one desires to hear something essential and transformative rather than contributing to the cacophony.

Of course, in this twenty-first century technological nexus of global interfusion lifted by consuming swells of social media, one can only imagine the ex-patriate Eliot “gobsmacked” by just how pervasively this twittering world has become more virtually, literally, and (one might say) allegorically circumscribed by the tenor and vehicle of his original metaphor. Virtual because our world has become shaped and reformed by virtual reality. Literal because in a world of infinitely iterative and interactive “Zoom rooms” the virtual appears to have collapsed entirely into the literal. Allegorical because the cultural topography only so briefly sketched codifies an existential investment in the superficiality and expendability of discourse. Perhaps it is not overstating to say we have become a world defined by the screen rather than the window, which lends Eliot’s “twittering world” a visual as well as auditory aspect.

In any case, in such a literally and virtually twittering world we run the risk continually of losing the necessarily distancing perspective of the allegorical. The twittering world enwraps and enraptures, nets us in every respect. The potential danger for poets especially is a loss of depth perception that can deform sensibility and derisively impact one’s apprehension and practice of the art.  It is hard to get the news from poetry, Eliot’s staunchest detractor William Carlos Williams wrote, and harder still for the poet to get the real news to begin with when so much in the twittering world mitigates against discernment.  Or to take a further cue from Gary Snyder, to reserve space in one’s often distracting life for the “real work” of poetry the poet needs to find ways of securing purchase on what is “really real” within and beyond the ever-passing and often engulfing stream of our collective and barely reflective consciousness.

One should never presume one has a universal grasp of a condition or circumstance, however one might hope to “penetrate the mirror,” to borrow Michael Donaghy’s phrase.[i] Though such considerations about the attitudes of poets toward their work put me in mind of an encounter at the front desk of a writing department where I worked. I had come off the elevator after class and saw a klatch of graduate students talking, one of whom said—I couldn’t help but overhear—that all of the poets she most admired had Twitter accounts. The work of this student was among the strongest in recent years, and while my own work’s placement in her personal hierarchy apparently had been cast aside (I do not, alas, maintain a Twitter account). I found myself less piqued than struck by what so confident a declaration meant for this promising poet’s frame of aesthetic regard. I can think of many worthy and remarkable poets who do not, and many who never will, have Twitter accounts. Many of these presently grace the planet with their work, but a greater number from a plethora of times and traditions have departed the twittering world entirely, and the preeminent among them quite some time ago. What does it mean for poets to have their range of admiration so narrowed during a time when access to longstanding models of practice, and various traditions, has never been so enrichingly immediate? What does the trend toward contemporaneity and the potential impermeability of poetic communities—if these are trends—mean for poetic practice? How might it impact the role of the audience, or rather the poet’s conception of audience, in the making of a poem?

I raise these questions fully aware of Robert Graves’s chastening caveat: “Never use the word `audience.’ The very idea of a public, unless the poet is writing for money, is wrong. Poets don’t have an ‘audience.’ They’re talking to a single person all the time.” Fair enough. I extend all of my esteem to the purity of Graves’s intention, as well as his farsighted and sardonic assessment of poets who prize popularity over artistry, among whom Rupi Kauer and Amanda Gorman, as well as bevies of Insta-poets, are the latest iterations. On the other hand, the aforementioned student—a poet not uncharacteristic of her generation—appears almost singularly conscious of her prospective audience in the most literal incarnation. Given the zeitgeist in the proverbial poetry business it is not surprising. A recent colloquium at one prominent venue for poets addressed the issue head-on in its title: “How to Grow Your Audience.” Earlier in the twenty-first century, another prominent venue offered a podcast entitled “The Poetry of the Future” in which three notable poets discussed among other things the idea of audience. Each highlighted an issue that seems relevant to my inquiry here. The first stated what appears to be obvious: relative to other arts, poets constitute their own “little world” and, mostly, constitute the audience for their art. The second underscored the incontestable fact that the very idea of poetry in America has expanded to include formerly marginalized poets whose race, sex, and class, as well as gender identification, affirm a more expansive practice in the art. The third panelist stated more narrowly and simply that poets had “to see to it to make ourselves heard.” Along such lines, in 2006, the redoubtable though more recently mercurial Poetry Foundation pursued a wide-ranging study on the audience for poetry, scientifically conceived, and replete with all kinds of data configured into all manner of detailed tables and charts. The findings even now appear dated.

One might delve back further to plumb the roots of the poetic audience during the rise of modernity: Pope’s courtly trepidation and rise, Wordsworth’s assumption of a universal audience grounded in nature, Byron’s transgressive popularity, Shelley’s desire for popularity and his failure to obtain it, Tennyson’s social and cultural good fortune, Yeats’ s alchemy of the ideal and the actual, as well as the modernist penchant for “difficulty” and rarified reception.[ii] All things considered, this brief foray appears to give the lie, alas, to Graves’s spare though lofty ideal. Perhaps nothing can be more emphatically the case in view of the predominance of today’s social media world that poets must “make ourselves heard” or potentially have their work gain relevance only to the very few, though hopefully fit, to carry forward Milton’s and Pound’s shared dictum; or to have it ignored, or drift sadly away like the fictional Hugh Selwyn Mauberly into ever-widening Sargassos of ephemera.  Still, at the other extreme, when one astute contemporary poet and Net-surfer took consideration of the question “Who do I write for?” the individual responded to his own momentous rhetoric with the acutest perspicacity and laudable honesty: “Fuck if I know.”



Yet, the circumstance of not knowing who one is writing for is not necessarily the same as having no idea of an audience. It does, however, suggest an open-endedness that naturally gravitates to a further conception of audience, one which appears consonant with a certain leveling and broadening of reach. My student would take this condition as the given habitat of poetry in the currently twittering world, and for the foreseeable future. This open-ended, seemingly egalitarian reach finds resonance with Bonnie Costello’s musings in The Plural of Us, her study of the “first-person plural” pronoun in poetry, where she claims optimistically that “poetry’s first- person plural suggests how the genre may propose or project open, reflective, splayed community, and create a sense of potential in `us’ that is not predicated on consensus, domination, or the mentality of the crowd.”[iii] In view, however, of the tactics and attitudes of contemporary cancel culture and its penchant for scorched-earth censorship of a perceived offender—the individual’s failure to align with prevailing codes of belief—any unreflective embrace of such a “splay community” appears, well, imagined.  Imagining an idealized reality isn’t hard to do, as John Lennon continues to remind us, but in the case of the intersection of audience and social media one feels, inevitably, the need for caution. De Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority” comes to mind, for example.  In view of, or in spite of, all such legitimate apprehensions, there is validity in seeing the audience in Twitter world as wholly prefabricated. One enters the portal, and one then has to wonder how subtly the twittering audience influences one’s work, and perhaps deform its deeper and purer intentions, assuming of course the poet cares. A poet should care, of course, really must care, for the poet’s idea of an audience inevitably shapes the work, and does so to the point of reflecting one’s idea of the world, indeed one’s idea of what is real in any ultimate sense.

While there are numerous poets who conformed their lives and work to the prospects of “the court,” whether literally or merely the court of Po-Biz, there have been poets whose idea of audience had little to do with any social currency. As such, the technical currency of their work exhibited an uncommonly pure commitment to their art. “This is my letter to the World / that never wrote to me,” Emily Dickinson wrote, at once giving voice to her sense of painful separateness and to her allegiance to “Nature” whose “Message,” she hopes will be judged tenderly by Hands she cannot see. The paradox of Dickinson’s poem rests in an essential ambiguity: the poet has no audience, though there is also an audience in potentia in the Hands that will judge. Or are those Hands, like Nature itself, suggestive of a greater presiding Audience? Such an Audience, while open-ended, insinuates a valuation more comprehensive and necessary than her time. Likewise, Dickinson’s estimation of fame was similarly complex. Fame has, as one of her poems tells us, both a sting and a wing and, as another witnesses, fame is fickle. Obviously, fame requires audience, though in what I take to be her greatest poem on the subject, this most equally imperative and reticent of poets cuts to the quick:

Fame is the one that does not stay —
Its occupant must die
Or out of sight of estimate
Ascend incessantly —
Or be that most insolvent thing
A Lightning in the Germ —
Electrical the embryo
But we demand the Flame

That the poem begins with the recognition of fame’s inconstancy quickly elides to the still more essential recognition of the ephemerality of life. What transports the poem into the essential brilliance of its insight is its claim that the real ascent is “out of sight of estimate.” And that is the same original and originating vitality that both creates the embryo and, still more imperatively for the poet, urges one to demand the pure source of being, the Flame, itself. At this junction, the one has become many, we. It is Costello’s “plural singular” made incarnate, but its community, the poem’s self’s audience, its “we,” allies itself with a reality more real than death and life, and certainly more real than any social and aesthetic estimate. In the end, Dickinson’s poem is nothing other than a petition to the Flame, the Flame that is all at once ascent and embryo and inexhaustible end.

One could hardly imagine Emily Dickinson, by herself at the Hermitage in Amherst, delicately crimping her fascicles digitally for promotion on the internet, though it might make for a witty skit. Nor could one imagine the same of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose true and almost only audience was God:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

Here, surely, we find Graves’ single listener to whom the poet speaks, though because Hopkins is a devout Catholic his single listener is simultaneously and paradoxically a community of Three Persons in one God.  “Oh, which one, is it each one” the poet exclaims near the poem’s end, such that the heaven-handling hero, Christ, and the agonized soul become nearly con/fused with the poem’s wrenching imitatio Christi. If Hopkins’s guiding idea of audience is simply God, then it is this rarified Audience that most forges the work and opens it to the world—a world that is decidedly not twittering.

Like Hopkins, Lorine Niedecker wrote poems against the backdrop of social limitation, in her case a life of mostly menial labor and a remove from any substantive center of literary community. Though Niedecker’s idea of audience is not Hopkins’s God, nor Dickinson’s Flame burning within and before the essence of things, it is shaped by her economic circumstances as well as her relative solitude in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. One might say it was her correspondence with Cid Corman and a few others that enabled and enhanced the natural “condensery” of her poetry, as she characterized it in her poem “Poet’s Work.” There, she describes writing as an arbitrary trade engaged in at the behest of her grandfather, one that offers no “lay-off” though, one suspects, it does offer a dedicated engagement with the world. The final section of her poem “Tradition” addresses the heart of that matter:

Time to garden
before I
to meet
my compost maker
the caretaker
of the cemetery

Neither the natural goings of the earth at which there appears to be no germinating flame, nor genuinely caring caretaker, nor any reverence for the shaping literary influences, appear here to inform Niedecker’s grasp of the real.  What does inform Niedecker’s work is, I believe, the idea that the audience must be as linguistically parsimonious as she is. Unlike Dickinson or Hopkins, I can imagine Niedecker time-phased belatedly into the twittering world of the twenty-first century, though I cannot imagine the work adapted one wit in its mode of being to all of the biz or buzz. What I do see in admittedly contrasting terms is a poet whose work is guided by an impassible limit, one that forces all questions of audience to face something that Dickinson might have called the ultimate silence beyond all estimate.

What characterizes my three exemplars in relief of a Poetry World that appears driven to estimations of immediate regard and praise is the notable absence of any “enigmatic impulse that does not allow one to settle down in the achieved, the finished.”[iv] Czesław Miłosz takes this impulse as part and parcel of a poet’s “quest for reality.” His view prompts a further guiding principle:  that “the whole fabric of causes and effects, whether we call it nature or history, points toward… another, hidden reality, impenetrable, though exerting a powerful attraction that is the central driving force of all art and science.”[v] When one establishes the making of poems, against the backdrop of this impenetrable but powerfully attractive reality, it seems one must alter one’s assumptions about who the ultimate audience is for one’s work—however one may wish or actively seek to have one’s work gain purchase on the time one inhabits, or the literary history one aspires for one’s work. In view of this, a third principle inevitably announces itself: “those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever.’[vi] Who do I write for asks the poet considering all such issues? I write for the dead.



The proposition that a poet should desire principally to write for an audience that by definition is not present in any material or temporal way, and can only be tangibly unresponsive to the poet’s efforts, appears on its face to be an absurdity. There is something more readily assuring in James Wright’s conception of the ideal audience as “the intelligent reader of good-will.” It is less potentially delusional as well. Wright’s definition appears to cover all of the bases, and saves the poet from the sin of over-reaching.  In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth claimed that “in spite of difference to soil and climate… the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.” Despite the visionary aspirations of Wordsworth’s conception of audience, his claim assumes “enormous potential for solipsism and self-aggrandizement.”[vii] Wordsworth’s application of the word “empire” in his formulation infuses an incontestably political significance to his claim. From the vantage of our own historical moment Wordsworth’s idea of an audience feels blinkered, dangerous, or ironic in its metaphorical employment of “empire.” Likewise, Whitman’s manifest notion that great poets need great audiences is irretrievably linked to an arguably univocally democratic vista that would define the destiny of an entire continent. Both conceptions give ample credence to the idea that the poet’s idea of audience dovetails with the poet’s cultural role and shapes the poetry.”[viii] It’s little wonder that, fearful of this vital fusion and the poet’s twice remove from the ideal World of Forms, Plato argued the poet should be banished from his quintessential Republic.

Of course, across many different “soils and climates,’ throughout diverse and numerous cultural histories, the poet has assumed a central and essential role. In ancient Ireland, the file ranked as living repositories of the identifying cultural narrative. They were also something like lawyers and ambassadors as well as poets and pre-internet memory-storage Clouds rolled into one. Professional in a manner that might rankle Robert Graves, their audience was their society, its chieftains “their court,” and their poetry assumed its status in that context. At the same time, the world of the file existed on the geographical fringe of Europe, and so was more traditionally “native,” despite its being subject to progressive and expanding waves of Western empire-building—though the implications of empire building and cultural take-over surely is not limited to Europe and the West. Track the human path out of Africa (now evidently in multiple iterations from Neanderthal to Sapiens) and one encounters a vista of adaptive and evolutive success married to and marred by competitive and local devastation. Collectively, we owe our very existence to the dead and, for that matter, not just the dead of our particular species.

The proclivity of humanity to overwhelm the competition genetically, tribally, and globally does not diminish the incalculable natural and cultural losses over the turbulent course of our “stewardship” of the planet. Nor does it provide a gainsay for oppression and genocide at this new dawn of what we have come to call the Anthropocene.  If anything, at this stage of our collective life, the idea that something might direct the poet’s soul in Joyce’s phrase “to that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead” should not seem so out of step with the virtual impress of the dead-as-audience on the poet’s work. Eoghan O’Rathaille’s deathbed poem, written to a friend at the time when Alexander Pope’s work presided at court, stands as a less theoretical illustration of what I am trying to get at. Faced with the collapse of his language and his society, the last Irish bard bequeaths his last song:

Out of the vast ruins of ancients from whom I come
A mighty crashing rush ploughs through my every thought
As from pure springs born from the crests of Kerry’s Reeks,
Shed with the Blackwater’s into the tidal flats of Youghal.

I’m done now, picked clean, now that death’s cliff is on me.
Since the dragon warriors of Laune, and Leane, and Lee
Have been cast down, I go to my beloved heroes in the grave,
The good lords who’ve fostered me from before Christ’s death.[ix]

The rage that laces across and through O’Rathaille’s poem invests it with a tragic and brutal resignation, and it surely resonates with poems by modern and contemporary poets who faced, and face, the trauma of cultural loss. “How many homelands / play cards in the air / as the refugee passes through the mystery,” Nelly Sachs asks.  It is as if her poem “Flight and Metamorphosis” positioned itself at the exact fulcrum of consciousness where the dead reveal their witness to the living:

Who dies
here last
will carry the grain of sun
between his lips
will thundercrack the night
in death-throe rot.

Sachs continues her probing later in the poem in a manner that explicitly links death’s ultimacy with the beginning of life:

in the whirlwind of departure
pushing your toes’ white flaming foam
against the burning ring of the horizon
seeking death’s secret way out.

What startles in the juxtaposition of these sections is the poet’s interplay of meditation and address–how permeable the poem’s voice has become to the presence and petitioning of the death world.  Here, the apparent foreclosure of being opens to a further secret, a transcendent horizon. At this most perplexing juncture, the dead listen first and the living overhear.

The question of whether one can and should write for the dead in the way a poet might presume to compose poems for any audience begs the question of the long-heralded death of poetry itself. O’Rathaille’s social and linguistic world collapsed with colonization and penal laws intending to uproot a culture. Sachs survived the Holocaust, as did Paul Celan, only to contend with the necrotized undersurface of language tooled to the machinations of genocide. One commentator on modernism saw the movement as a “right wing coup.”[x] Pound’s championing of Mussolini notwithstanding (nor Yeats’s songs for the Blue Shirts, nor Eliot’s condemnation of “strange gods” other than his own), the oft-lamented tribulations of poetry after modernism inevitably constellate around the problem of difficulty. In After the Death of Poetry, Vernon Shetley observes “today poetry itself, any poetry, has become difficult for even the more ambitious reader as the habits of thought and communication inculcated by contemporary life have grown to be increasingly at variance with those demanded for the reading of poetry.”[xi] Conversely, Robert von Hallberg in American Poetry and Culture 1945-1980 makes the point that, in fact, poetry found a steadier audience in the middle years of the twentieth century. For him, “the tone of the center” informed much of the canonical work of the time.[xii] Since then, the by now deflated salvos between the Language Poets and the New Formalists exemplified the problem Shetley initially outlined.  Neither movement achieved “the tone of the center” envisioned by von Hallberg. If anything, Language Poetry embraced difficulty through its alignment with academic theory and its investment in the doctrine that words refer only to words, and not “to a reality that must be described as faithfully as possible.”[xiii] The New Formalists advocated what they saw as a return to poetry’s lost populism, or at least to reclaim some of the territory annexed by prose. Neither school succeeded in resuscitating the corpse of poetry, assuming there was a corpse to begin with, in view of von Hallberg’s counter-assessment of poetry’s mid-century audience.

Were one to articulate a middle path through these contending aesthetic and ideological ramparts, one way forward that might redress the purported death of poetry is to increase the comprehensive engagement of the readership by making the difficulty of poetry worthwhile beyond the truncated expectations of our entertainment culture. The separation between poet and audience is not the fault of poets, contended W.Y. Tindall in 1945, but of society.[xiv] Some forty years later in his Norton Lectures, Milosz contended that “citizens in a modern state, no longer mere dwellers in their village and district, know how to read and write but are unprepared to receive nourishment of a higher intellectual order. They are sustained artificially on a lower level by television, films, and illustrated magazines.”[xv] What would the Nobel laureate say about electronic gaming, Twitter, and Instagram? Both Tindall’s and Milosz’s uncomfortable assessments hold true today, despite the reinvigoration of poetry’s popularity and the visible rise of communities of poetry and audiences for poetry over the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Poetry now by most accounts has risen from the dead, and among other virtues is acutely responsive to the social pressures of the time. Still, in a present that continues to exhibit “a dizzying proliferation of styles and almost no commonality of taste,”[xvi] where does the poet turn for perspective, and under what auspices?  After the death of the death of poetry, how can writing for the dead nourish the depth, aspiration, and breadth of poets seeking to align their art with “a higher intellectual order?”



Perhaps the central lament in Milosz’s The Witness of Poetry is his admission that the poetry of the twentieth century “testifies to serious disturbances in the perception of the world.”[xvii] He formulates his steely judgment as someone who experienced dislocation at an early age during the First World War, lived proximate to the Holocaust, and found himself caught between the dual horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. He lived in exile for very nearly the remainder of his life.  It is no surprise that he believed the word “disintegration” best characterized what he experienced first-hand during his lifetime. In our twenty-first century, technologically speaking, while the world is more integrated than ever before, we still have no shortage of seismic political and social disturbances, though thankfully (as yet) no world wars. We also experience subtler and indeed more insidious forms of disintegration in the way in which we live, some arising from those very technological advances that appear to link us as never before with an inescapable connectivity.

The most emphatic of these disintegrations pertains to our experience of community and identity, which has evolved along with the rise and cultural leavening of nominalist and positivist modes of thinking, as well as with the marginalization of viable models of the transcendent. The source of this marginalization of the transcendent might be labled fundamentalist materialism. The contrary fundamentalisms of religion have no answer to the former, for the very reason that they have themselves grown out of the cultural breakage barring them from the rich veins of theological and philosophical thought out of which western science itself evolved. Despite all of our connectivity, we have become fragmented into what Bonnie Costello calls “speech communities.”  In turn, she contends, poetic rhetoric “is shaped by the kind of speech communities it imagines and imitates.”[xviii] Given these conditions, the influence of so called “identity poetics” finds the source of its vitality in such inherently nominalist social dynamics. In view of such reflections, for Costello, the poet’s relation to any reader is always potential not actual;[xix] though the inverse—the narrowly settled presumption of a poet’s actual audience—is just what might be becoming additionally atomizing for poetry.

Needless to say, this is thorny subject matter.  My aim is not to promulgate traditionally established modes of “poetic rhetoric” over and against traditionally marginalized “speech communities” and their histories, but only to underscore the fact that no history or artful practice is entirely cut off from any other, nor should be. The gathered throngs condemning what they identify as appropriation need to consider the fact that great art comes, if it comes, out of complex and extensive conversations across differences. There is also the biological fact that we are all inextricably linked with each other and to the universe that has given rise, for a time, to us. As our collective history as a nation and as a species confronts the potential fracturing of any shared common identity embraced across legitimate and often painfully realized differences, it appears urgently necessary for poets, like everyone, to eschew an the predominant “remorseless binary thinking” in favor of seeking instead actively to discover “commonalities across groups.”[xx] Or, as George Oppen wrote with an acuity that precedes the present circumstance:

Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck
Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.

Despite the well-established harbingers of institutional nominalism broadcast everywhere like a barely heard background score, the singular understood as something distinct unto itself will always be shipwrecked. The poet’s job is to explore in the solitary work of making poems the verity of our being numerous. That is the nature of the human family to which poetry should offer its most fulsome ascent.

On the subject of being numerous the dead are nonpareil, for the dead are nothing if not ever-more numerous, the most encompassing, inclusive, and diverse of audiences of which each of us will one day be a part. “But now go the bells, and we are ready,” John Crowe Ransom’s great elegy begins. Do not ask for whom they toll for beyond John Whiteside’s daughter, for “goldengrove” as Hopkins’s grieving Margaret knows “un-leaves” for all of us. For poets to seek to bring their work consciously into earshot of the dead is to place the highest and most responsible demand on the art. For the dead, in the pregnancy of their silence, require of the poet the most conscientious and comprehensive practice.

Natasha Trethewey is one contemporary poet whose body of work is self-consciously and concertedly pitched to an audience of the dead—the slaves and ex-slaves whose lives have been submerged under oppressive tides of history, Bellocq’s photographer’s model the Storyville prostitute Ophelia, her grandmother who was a long-tine domestic servant, and especially her mother who was murdered by her stepfather.  In Native Guard, her Pulitzer prize-winning sequence that interleaves her mother’s murder with the history the Corps Afrique who guarded white soldiers during the Civil War, Trethewey sonorously and ruefully gives voice to the dead. The “ghost of history,” as she observes in one poem, lies down beside her, “rolls over,” and “pins her with a heavy arm.” Yet it is precisely the apparently unbearable heaviness of history, a history of the forgotten and neglected dead, that so enables the poet to lift the voice of witness.

Consistent with this voice of witness, Trethewey’s crown of sonnets, “Native Guard,” begins with her anonymous ex-slave giving testament to memory and the truth that often eludes the history books:

Truth be told, I do not want to forget
anything of my former life: the landscape’s
song of bondage…

In sinuous detail, Trethewey’s crown of sonnets embodies in its simultaneously self-circling form of eternity and the self-consumingly recurrent pattern of trauma. “Death makes equals of us all,” the poem’s memoirist reflects ironically, “a fair master.” Nonetheless, “there are things that must be accounted for.” The urgency of that double vision—what needs to be brought to the visible and auditory life of witness among the living, the truth that widens beyond apprehension with the dead—obtains an almost palpable currency, pervasive and incontestable, somehow hovering between absence and presence:

Beneath battlefields, green again,
the dead molder—a scaffolding of bone
we tread upon, forgetting. Truth be told.

Truth, of course, is the crux of the matter, the truth of the irreducible witness of the dead that commands the poet to speak on their behalf.  It infuses “Native Guard” with a kind of spiritual necessity, a sense of urgency further underscored by a pattern of allusion: to crucifixion, to the Parish of Ascension, resonant with the poet’s own age, her “Jesus year” alluded to in another of the book’s poems.  It is a sacred duty, as these lines from “Invocation, 1926” in Congregation insist:

Bless the laborers
whose faces we do not see—like the girl
my grandmother was, walking the rails home:

bless us that we remember.

Still more insistently, what Trethewey’s commitment to her art embodies is nothing less than the consciousness of a vocation. I mean “vocation” (from vocare, “to call”) in the most religious understanding of that term. She is “bound fast” to the work and vision of the poems. The crowded audience of the silenced dead has lifted her work far above the twittering of merely professional regard, though obviously her work has garnered considerable regard:

Three weeks gone, my mother came to me

In a dream, her body whole again but for
one perfect wound, the singular articulation

of all of them: a hole, center of her forehead,
the size of a wafer—light pouring from it.

How then could I not answer her life
with mine, she who saved me with hers?

And how could I not—bathed in the light
of her wound—find my calling there?

What could be more movingly revealing than this vision of Trethewey’s murdered mother as a a figure reminiscent of the imitation of Christ, who now sanctifies the poet’s calling?  It is as if the dead were not only the truest audience for the poet’s work, but its sanctifying and redemptive muse.



In one of his prose reflections in Unattainable Earth, Czeslaw Milosz reminisces about his early life as he pours over a photograph of a village he knew on the border of Poland and Lithuania. “All the people who once walked there are dead by now,” he considers. Everything about them, “era, fashions, mores,” has lost its original meaning in “that densely populated land of shadows” that allows us “to imagine that the dead of all places and centuries, made equal” and communicating “with each other.”[xxi] Milosz’s observation goes to the heart of the matter, and dovetails perfectly with the historical, moral, and imaginative terrain of Trethewey’s poems. The felt presence of the dead as audience discovered within one poet’s particularly fraught personal and social history, as in Milosz’s more broadly metaphysical musings, enlarges the frame by magnitudes.  Both take to task implicitly if not explicitly his lament that “the language of literature in the twentieth century has been steeped in unbelief.” Through her own deliberative aesthetic lens, Trethewey greatly widens and clarifies the aperture of her poetry. Milosz also understands memory to be crucial to the poet’s art. Though we have only momentary access to what he calls “interior memory,” the fact that such memory exists beyond the limits of consciousness undermines “the belief that, with death” a person perishes forever. Such a view, he affirms, “implies that the oversensitive tape” of memory “is recorded for nobody.” Such an essentially absurd fate appears “improbable” to Milosz. Here again, the dead as audience petitions the poet to pursue the most urgent and aesthetically demanding of encounters.

Nowhere is the directive to write for the dead more vitally explicit than in elegy. Nonetheless, like all poems, elegies assume a double audience. On the one hand, there is what Costello calls “the exquisite, transparent meeting of two solitudes.” On the other the “expansive congregation” of the literary audience in its more social aspect.[xxii] This latter, she avers, while not wholly separable from the former involves implied or overt metaphors of performance and theatricality. In short, poems to one degree or another presume a “dramatization of consciousness.” In its socially turned aspect, poems bring about “a hypothetical, untethered community, as it forms a network known to itself and unlinked to identity.”[xxiii]  Costello’s assertions strike me as incontestable, but what elegy calls for is a farther congregational horizon. Elegies are, according to Eavan Boland and Mark Strand, essentially public poems of lament, and therefore comprise “a crucial formal link with the history of public poetry,” so much so that “elegy is one of the forms that can be said to be co-authored by its community.”[xxiv] Peter Sacks underscores this same idea when he envisions elegy having “roots in a dense matrix of rites and ceremonies.”[xxv] The very word “elegy” comes from the double pipe “aulos” that would accompany its recitation, the elegy following as it does “the basic passage through grief or darkness to consolation and renewal” even “immortality.”[xxvi] Jahan Ramazani, in turn, reframes the modern elegy around the idea that “for many of us religious rituals are no longer adequate to the complexities of mourning for the dead.”[xxvii] As such, he sees the modern elegy as a poem that must “hold up the acid suspicions of our own moment,” while remaining a poem that affirms nonetheless  “though God may have died… the dead have turned to gods fort many modern poets.”[xxviii]

Indeed, whether viewed as poems to gods in Ramazani’s sense, or more traditional memorials of loss and mourning, elegies are inevitably tethered to the dead who, because they are the inextricable subject, confer upon the poet crucially urgent and culturally vital demands for poetic performance. Though examples of elegy are legion and tonally varied from Milton’s “Lycidas” to Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” from Jonson’s lyrical “For My Son” and Donne’s meditational “Elegies,” from Dickinson’s projective self-elegies to Lowell’s monumental “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” elegies constitute the purest and most needful linkage between poet and audience, particularly given their incontestable cultural origins in ritual and ceremony.

Geoffrey Hill’s “In Memory of Jane Fraser” illustrates the point. The first two quatrains in both the elegance of their formalism and the vivid immediacy of their imagery establish the wintry precedence of impending death.  In a brilliant inversion of expectation, it is the dying woman who broods over death “like a strong bird of prey,” rather than succumb submissively to the inevitable.  In this, Jane Fraser’s relationship to her own death obtains exemplary stature:

Damp curtains glued against the pane
Sealed time away. Her body froze
As if to freeze us all, and chain
Creation to a stunned repose.

All deaths are embodied in the death of this one person, as is indeed the death of creation itself though the chains of being that binds all to all. As such, when in the final quatrain the poet projects the hopeful stirring of spring alders, the promise of new life redounds to the poet, the reader, and to all creation and not only to the newly dead. Though the poem is addressed to Jane Fraser (“she kept the siege”), as a link in creation’s chain she is at once singularity and plurality. All things are bound by that chain, and to the repose of death. Her individual mortality binds her to all perishing things. A such, she cannot help but be, especially in death, a part of the audience. She listens, as it were, like Seamus Heaney in his elegiac sonnet sequence for his mother, “Clearances,” “beyond silence listened for.”

Something similar, if less hopeful obtains in William Matthews’s elegy for Charles Mingus, the extraordinary jazz pianist who died of ALS.  In “Mingus in Shadow,” the poet, evocating the extremity of the disease, has no qualms describing “how much / stark work it took to fend death off and fail.” In keeping with the metaphorical work of elegies, beached whales in Baja signal nature’s own investment in the poet’s lament:

Great nature grieved
for him, the story means, but it was great

nature that skewed his cells and siphoned
his force and melted his fat like tallow
and beached him in a wheelchair under
a sombrero.

What Matthews’s poem ultimately celebrates, however, is “human nature, tiny nature.” It is tiny human nature that seeks to redress the stark diminishment of death with art, which is itself a paean to Mingus’s own artistry. The poet aims for the precision of the photographer.  Even where no alder cones stir the poet’s imagination toward renewal—the lamented “is all the light there is”—it is the dead’s presence in their very absence that paradoxically completes the congregation of poem and subject, living and dead.

In keeping with the demands of elegy, Hill’s “In Memory of Jane Fraser” and Matthews’s “Mingus in Shadow” assume the heavy responsibility, the gravity in every sense, of writing for the dead. The urgent demands of elegy become ever more intimately fashioned when the poem makes direct address to the one who has died—or, in the case of Betty Adcock’s “No Encore,” everyone who has ever died or every will die. “I’m just an assistant in the Vanishing Act,” Adcock’s wry but devasting poem begins, “my spangled wand points out the disappeared.” The wand, of course, is nothing other than the poem itself, “a poor thing made of words” that “lacks / the illusive power to light the darkling year.” What Adcock’s poem owns is the impotence of elegy to redress the pervasive inevitability of death, and not only for the dead but for all: “the thing that’s gone is never coming back.” At the same time, her theatrical conceit is nothing less than transfiguring, for her extended metaphor is exactly the vehicle which gives the poem its power and its unflinching truthfulness. In the face of death and the dead, seen now as an infinite multitude, the poet’s work appears almost ridiculous, however precise the illusion:

For now, I wear a costume and dance obliquely.
The applause you hear is not for me, its rabid sound
like angry rain—as one by one the known forms cease to be:
childhood, the farm, the river, forested ground;
the tiger and the condor, the whale, the honeybee;
the village, the book, the lantern. Then you. Then me.

Adcock’s infinitely expanding catalogue of loss evolves from the constituencies of selfhood and personal circumstance to the natural and global, and finally envelops everything. The “everything” brought to “nowhere” is no summary collective, but rather “you” and “me,” for each death involves the loss of each singular being and every relationship, the one and the many brought to cessation throughout time.  “No Encore,” in effect, might be called a self-consuming elegy, or as the poem declares “not prophecy, not elegy, but fact.”  Were one to ferret out the slightest hope inside Adcock’s limit condition for the genre, it might be the limit of “the known forms” to which she alludes.  What might live beyond those forms the poem cannot tell us since, to borrow from Wallace Stevens, whatever might transcend the known metaphysically extends beyond “the palm at the end of the mind.” It therefore eludes representation, for the limit of death precludes it.  What the poet has is language, metaphor “the known forms.”

As elegy, Adcock’s “No Encore” is ruthlessly encompassing, though in another poem to her late husband in the same volume, Rough Fugue, she reflects “all words contain a tree, / language a rooted branching / on the paths of breath.”[xxix] One might even say, in this vein, that the tree seeded in every word has its roots in the complex branching of life itself, its weave of connection despite, or perhaps through the seemingly impassible fact of death. Stanley Kunitz’s proto-ecopoem of the Anthropocene, “The Wellfleet Whale,” explores this theme with astonishing perspicacity and formal complexity, and with a meditative grandeur that blends the apparently conflicting aspirations of the elegy and the ode:

You have your language too,
an eerie medley of clicks
and hoots and trills,
location-notes and love calls,
whistles and grunts. Occasionally,
it’s like furniture being smashed,
or the creaking of a mossy door,
sounds that all melt into a liquid
song with endless variations,
as if to compensate
for the vast loneliness of the sea.
Sometimes a disembodied voice
breaks in as if from distant reefs,
and it’s as much as one can bear
to listen to its long mournful cry,
a sorrow without name, both more
and less than human. It drags
across the ear like a record
running down.

In Kunitz’s take on whale life—an evocative presence in both Matthews’s and Adcock’s poems as well—language is the bearer of a common, creaturely relation between the non-human and the human, both of whom are united in their existence within a “vast loneliness” that is not only the literal sea but the still vaster ocean of being.  The whale’s “long mournful cry” is “a sorrow without a name,” which is the same nameless sorrow to which the poet is called to give a name.

The poet’s naming of reality is always provisional precisely because what is ultimate eludes representation in language, and what is ultimate in Kunitz’s poem is nothing less than a profound metaphysical loneliness running through the whole of creation. Yet, there is vision in the provisional, and it is Kunitz’s vision of the whale, at first an “advent” before which the human world waits in anticipation, then an occasion of “awe and wonder,” then the brutalized magnet for voyeurism and souvenirs that nonetheless embodies the witness’s own “terror and recognition.” Finally, in the poem’s last section, the poet restores and celebrates the whale’s monumental, parallel existence to human evolution and human history by remythologizing the dying and abused creature—only to once again demythologize it by delivering the creature, the fellow creature, ironically, to “the mercy of time” in which it becomes “like us, / disgraced and mortal.”  In Kunitz’s “The Wellfleet Whale,” the directive to write for the dead at once transcends the frangible condition of the human species, and binds it existentially to an encompassing myth of creaturely relation, such that in our very mortality and disgrace we find commonweal—not with the human alone but with the non-human as well, and by extension with the planet and the the cosmos. It is a vision to which the final lines of Nazim Hikmet’s great poem “On Living” likewise bear incontestable witness:

This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

In elegy, writing for the dead constitutes the poem’s subject, its incontrovertible occasion. Beyond that obvious fact, what I am interested in is the idea of the dead as audience, indeed the dead as the unavoidable and most necessary audience. Again, Costello sees audience and therefore the poem as “part of the constellation of relations that projects the idea of community.”[xxx]  In turn, the reach of community and therefore of audience can be extensive, though it is also always “horizontal.” Audience merely widens in this view; it doesn’t deepen or elevate.  For all of the idealism attendant upon linking the idea of audience to a potentially evolving community with all of its social implications, such a view elides what Milosz called “the vertical orientation.” For Milosz, the vertical orientation, when human being “turned its eyes toward Heaven, has gradually been replaced… during the last few centuries by a horizontal longing.” In turn, “the always spatial human imagination has replaced `above’ with `ahead.’” The very idea of transcendence itself has undergone, in essence, a reversal where transcendence envisioned `ahead’ has displaced any transcendence directed `above.” We should take that old idea of ‘above’ figuratively or analogically rather than literally; and this vertical metaphor stands for the redeeming amplitude beyond our finite conceptions and apprehensions of immediate reality, beyond all of the known forms of our knowing. We see, now, through a glass darkly, which is nothing other than a figure for the figural, and analogue for the analogical, a metaphor the infinite tenor of which inevitably exceeds the vehicle’s finitude.

If one takes the reanimated orientation of vertical transcendence seriously, then the poet’s aspiration to write for the dead invites a dual summons. On the one hand, one must write in such a way as to aim for the fullest embodiment of truth. On the other, one must take beauty as an axiomatic goal. From a somewhat different vantage, poetry must “trouble the culture” and “resist incorporation into the degraded language of public discourse or into the idioms of the dominant intellectual skepticisms,[xxxi]  as Vernon Shetley reflected some twenty-five years ago. It does not take an extended survey of the current state of the art, however, to see that the aforementioned resistance to the degraded language of public discourse has not been widely achieved. On the contrary, if Milosz is right in claiming that “the fate of poetry depends on whether such a work as Schiller’s and Beethoven’s “`Ode to Joy’ is possible,” then if anything poetry’s fate appears bound to the erosion, not of standards, but of the very idea of standards The “universals” a critical lover of poetry like Bonnie Costello believes can be affirmed through “horizontal” community—e pluribus unum—can only find their secure grounding in a re-affirmed instantiation of “vertical” regard.

This kind of “vertical” orientation to writing for the dead I am advocating finds expression in Mark Doty’s “Atlantis,” written as an elegiac sequence for a friend who died of AIDS.  In the title section the poet confesses “I thought your illness a kind of solvent / dissolving the future a little at a time.” Doty’s initial orientation is strictly “ahead,” and this horizontal perspective positions the mind toward death’s inevitability. Though as the speaker considers two herons “plying their town trades of study and desire,” not unlike the poet and his beloved, the poem re-positions movingly and dramatically toward the “above:

I’ve seen
two white emissaries unfold

like heaven’s linen, untouched,
enormous, a fluid exhalation….

there in the air was white tulip,

marvel, triumph of all flowering, the soul
lifted up, if we could still believe

In the soul, after so much diminishment…

At this moment, Doty’s diction signals a tonal change that pivots expressly into the spiritual.  The herons now are “emissaries” and unfold before the poet “like heaven’s linen,” a marvel simultaneously of hyperbole and understatement, and a stunning figure.  The vision of the lifted soul, conditional as it is, nonetheless embodies the longing for transcendence all the more powerfully because of Doty’s admission of worldly diminishment. As “Atlantis” proves, to write for the dead with the conviction that one is really writing for the dead, however figuratively one may conceive the idea, is surely a profoundly compelling way to keep faith with the art of poetry, even when the direct appeal to religious belief is not doctrinally present.

“All reality is hierarchical,” Milosz declares, “simply because human need and the dangers threatening people are arranged on a scale.”[xxxii] It could be bread or the word, he reflects, or it could be death itself or slavery. What is incontestable in our own time is the preponderant desire to level seemingly all hierarchies. Nevertheless, Milosz continues “anyone who accepts the existence of such a scale behaves differently than someone who denies it.”[xxxiii] Certainly one writes differently. In any case, “the poetic act changes with the amount of background reality embraced by the poet’s consciousness.”[xxxiv] Death is always at the very least in the background, and eventually death always comes to the foreground. Witness Doty’s “Atlantis.” One might just as easily invoke “The Shield of Achilles,” where the figural shield in Auden’s handling of Homer’s myth is emblematic not of a single death—hard enough—but of the historical atrocities of the mid-twentieth century:

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Auden’s “unintelligible multitude” might just as easily be witnessed by anyone with access to a twenty-first century news outlet. Foregrounded in “The Shield of Achilles” is the prospect of man-made mass death, a reality that had become all too real in Auden’s time, and our own. To take a cue from Kunitz’s “The Wellfleet Whale,” one might consider the rapidly increasing depletion of species from the planet. In any case, Auden’s allusion to the “darkling plain” of Matthew Arnold’s prescient “Dover Beach” only bolsters and intensifies the later poet’s confrontation with unthinkable loss.

The theme of loss and its magnitudes is not unfamiliar to our own more recent history and our present. At the cusp of the twenty-first century, and drawing from an array of cultural traditions—Urdu, Hindu, Arabic, European, American–the late Agha Shahid Ali carries over the genuine form of the Persian “ghazal” into the English of his poetry and in doing so adds to the sum of the language’s poetic practice. One of his great subjects, in addition to love, is loss—of friends, family, and culture. Ali is not unaware of colonial history, and his imaginative riposte is a combination of rueful protest and formal redress:

The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic—
These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.

Ancestors, you’ve left me a plot in the family graveyard—
Why must I look, in your eyes, for prayers in Arabic?

The ghazal demands a formal “teasing into disunity,” to use Ali’s own words, in so far as each couplet from the matla (the first) onward carry no narrative import and appear discontinuous.  At the same time, the compositional demands of the radif (refrain word or phrase) and the quaafiya (pattern of rhyme) insist on the form’s associative connectivity. In the case of this particular ghazal, the form enables Ali to affiliate a variety of diverse literary and cultural allusions from Arabic history, fable, the Bible and Melville, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Kashmiri art and textiles, the Koran, Lorca, and Yehuda Amichai, among other references. It is, in fact, the very “disunity” of the form that occasions the poem’s more encompassing unity.

Building upon hundreds of years of tradition in Urdu, Persian and Arabic, the ghazal in Ali’s hands becomes a formal medium for difference orchestrated into unity—unity-in-difference—in which the tensive adjoining of various allusions resolve into a vitally animated equilibrium.  Obviously, the dead, Ali’s ancestors invoked early in the poem, stand as audience.  He addresses them and writes for them.  Yet, the other dead of the poem—the fabled Majnoon and real-life Lorca among others—likewise stand with the living as hearers of Ali’s words. As the ghazal nears its end, crucially it is the forgotten dead that loom most powerfully, those Palestinian men, women, and children, massacred in Palestine’s Deir Yassein by Zionist paramilitary in 1948:

Where there were homes in Deir Yassein, you’ll see dense forests—
That village was razed. There’s no sign of Arabic.

I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women
And everything else, just as you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.

That ask me to tell them what Shahid means—
Listen: it means The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

The juxtaposition of Deir Yassein and the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai intends to assert Ali’s claims to witness for the dead as well as to affirm his artistic claims with reference to a great poet he himself respects. Brilliantly, the maqta, the final couplet in which the poet’s name must appear, inscribes Ali’s double take on reality. The name Shahid’s meaning in Urdu, “The Beloved,” suggests the traditional figure for God’s union with the soul. The second meaning, “witness” in Arabic, links the poet to history, and to the dead of history. Ali’s double-take on his own name amounts to a double vision that links the poet simultaneously to eternity and time. In effect, Agha Shahid Ali’s “Ghazal” commands a redoubling of Milosz’s impress upon the poet of one’s background reality: the first, the “Beloved,” one might say is vertically inflected; the second, “witness,” is horizontally inflected. Transcendence and immanence find their tensive communion in the poet’s invocation of his own name.

Though more discursive in form than Ali’s ghazal, Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” elaborates an extended metaphor that renders the poem’s background reality obsessively present as the ultimate purpose of existence. In the poem’s final movement, Auden’s background reality of anagogical completion asserts itself powerfully into the imaginative foreground of the poem:

In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

In essence, Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” highlights three crucial and defining attributes of writing for the dead. The first is the eschatological nature of the endeavor. The inevitable incursion of “last things” upon the mind of the poet is nothing more than the refusal to turn from what has been self-evident to human consciousness from the earliest cave paintings and tombs.  What Milosz again identifies as the traditional longing of poets “to visualize and order located somewhere else” reveals itself to be resident in the poem’s extended metaphor-as-eschatology.[xxxv] All great poems are formally as well as subjectively owing to the incontestable truth of “death as a fact.” The poet’s aesthetic striving to achieve the utmost, to place the poem in conversation with the greatest that has been done by those who have gone before—is therefore nothing less than an effort of practical eschatology.

The second attribute is analogical. The underground murmur of Auden’s limestone landscape announces metaphor as the figural medium by which the poet negotiates and creatively enacts language’s relation to the inhabited world. The “unity-in-difference” Costello envisions as constitutive of “the plurality of us” is rendered credible antecedently through the fact of the world’s existence as an infinite network of analogical relations. The ultimate analogy is the analogy of being. The final attribute of the poet’s directive to write for the dead, to posit the dead as the ideal audience, is its foundation in the anagogical—the “faultless love” of “the life to come” in which the dead become ‘blessed,” naked before and within the all-in-all, the surpassing fullness of a faultless love. The paradox at this uttermost juncture is that the ultimate end is nothing other than never-ending. Auden’s “faultless love,” because he is Christian, resides in the unity of relation among Three Persons—a plural of One. Such is the symbol of the Trinity. It is for this reason that in Auden’s metaphorical grasp of ultimate reality, a limestone landscape—a landscape animated and defined by fault upon fault, its creational fallenness—is simultaneously the embodiment of the One Love that is perfectly faultless.


“Will the Marlin speak human when we meet Him face to face?” That was the question posed by a friend’s mother on her deathbed, her final words or thereabouts. From the standpoint of someone disinclined to discern anything more than the pure product of a final delirium in the question, the stirring vision of a magnificent fish metonymically standing-in for God would have little currency, though that is precisely the stuff of poetry, its spiritually freighted magic. And the woman’s final interrogation, undoubtedly framed and configured around her life as a daughter of Cuban exiles with an abiding connection to the sea, is poetry. It is also as bracing a theological question as any posed by a professional theologian, for it goes straight to the anagogical heart of the matter. What is the relationship between this life and what comes next after all the “known forms” fall away? That potent phrase, the denial of death, amplifies resonantly, though its compelling subversion of all our imaginative, cultural, social, and historical strategies of avoiding the prospect of the absence of any encore tends to devolve to the glibness of a slogan before the actual face querying one last time into the final conundrum. To write with this eschatological vantage in mind, with the dead in mind, enforces a much more serious conception of audience than what the twittering world requires of the poet. Such a view does not preclude a poet’s presence in the fluid and mercurial world of social media; it does, however, suggest the caveat that major poets are never merely reactive to their time, but exhibit the kind of unity of purpose that underwrites an effort to achieve or embrace some comprehensive vision of reality. Finally, it might even place a demand on the poet to revise one’s understanding of being in the world and, as such, what one seeks to accomplish with the task of making poems. Charles Wright’s “Homage to Paul Cezanne” announces this re-envisagement in no uncertain terms:

The dead are a cadmium blue.
We spread them with palette knives in broad blocks and planes.

We layer them stroke by stroke
In steps and ascending mass, in verticals raised from the earth.

We choose, and layer them in,
Blue, and a blue, and a breath,

Circle and smudge, cross-beak and buttonhook,
We layer them in. We squint hard and terrace them line by line.

And so we are come between, and cry out,
And stare up at the sky and its cloudy panes,

And finger the cypress twists.
The dead understand all this, and keep in touch,

Rustle of hand to hand in the lemon trees,
Flags, and the great sifts of anger

To powder and nothingness.
The dead are a cadmium blue, and they understand.

To accept the dead as audience in every sense is to accept that one has to make art in such a way as to live-up to the wholly transfigured mindfulness of the dead, what Auden called their blessedness, what Wright calls their understanding—impossible as that may appear to be from any finite vantage. But that is what the poem, like any great work of art, ultimately calls for.


[i] The phrase is from Michael Donaghy’s poem, “The Years”: penetrar el especjo. Michael Donaghy. Conjure (London: Picador, 2000) 38.

[ii] See Ian Jack, The Poet and His Audience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). 3ff.

[iii] Bonnie Costello, The Plural of Us (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017) 225.

[iv] Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel Lecture (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980) 6.

[v] Ibid., 20.

[vi] Ibid., 22.

[vii] Michael Ryan, “Poetry and the Audience,” in Poets Teaching Poets. Eds. Daniel; Tobin and Pimone Triplett (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996) 171.

[viii] Ibid., 163.

[ix] My translation.

[x] Ibid., 165.

[xi] Vernon Shetley, After the Death of Poetry (Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 1993) 3.

[xii] Robert von Hallberg, American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985) 13, 35.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] W.Y. Tindall, “Exiles: Rimbaud to Joyce,” American Scholar 14.3 (Smmer 1945) 351-355. Quoted in Shetley.

[xv] Czeslaw Milosz, The Witness of Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983) 109.

[xvi] Ryan, 181.

[xvii] Milosz, Witness, 17.

[xviii] Costello, 126.

[xix] Ibid., 26.

[xx] Ibid., 94.

[xxi] Czeslaw Milosz, Unattainable Earth, (New York: Ecco Press, 1986) 56.

[xxii] Costello, 120.

[xxiii] Ibid., 121.

[xxiv] Evan Boland and. Mark Strand, The Making of a Poem (New York: WW Norton, 201) 167.

[xxv] Peter Sacks, The English Elegy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) 2.

[xxvi] Sacks, 20, 27.

[xxvii] Jahan Ramazani, Poetry of Mourning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) ix.

[xxviii] Ramazani, x, 1.

[xxix] Betty Adcock, Rough Fugue (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017) 5.

[xxx] Costello, 138.

[xxxi] Shetley, 191.

[xxxii] Milosz, Witness, 96.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 97.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Milosz, Witness, 107.

About the Author

Daniel Tobin is the author of six books of poems, Where the World is Made, Double Life, The Narrows, Second Things, Belated Heavens (winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry), and The Net (2014). His seventh book of poems, From Nothing, is forthcoming in 2016. He is the author of the critical studies Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney and Awake in America, and the editor of The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Light in Hand: The Selected Early Poems and Lola Ridge, and Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Art. His awards include the “The Discovery/The Nation Award,” The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, and fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

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