Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 27, 2012

Every Poem is An Elegy

This idea was proposed at a poetry workshop I attended last week, sponsored by RHINO mag. in Evanston and led by Allison Joseph — editor of the Crab Orchard Review (SIU).   All of us at the workshop pretty quickly agreed that it is probably true, if you consider what the elegy is.

Elegies are traditionally poems that honor someone who has died.  (Think Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” about Marilyn Monroe.)  Elegies express a feeling of loss and how the speaker and the world are somehow diminished in light of the person’s passing.

But in modern times, the elegy has broadened to include poems about the loss of a place or thing, too — or an idea, a feeling, a period in history, a relationship, even one moment in time.

So really, when you think about it, how can any poem NOT be an elegy?  For at the root of any poem is an awareness of the passing of time.  All poems about nature implicitly or explicitly touch upon the cycle of seasons.  Any poems celebrating life or love or joy — what we see as the opposite of death or loss — in fact derive their power from the very notion that this moment or person or feeling is so wonderful exactly BECAUSE it is rare and fleeting and worthy of our attention.  It is to be celebrated and appreciated at this moment because this moment is all we have.

The poem I wrote in response to the workshop, titled “Not An Elegy,” points out this beautiful irony.  My poem asks the question:  Is every poem an elegy?  My narrator then focuses on a poem she supposedly wrote years ago about giving her newborn baby a bath.  (The bath part is true to my life — the poem part is fictitious!)  How would such a life-affirming act as bathing a newborn be considered elegiac?  But of course it is.  The poem ends like this:


(Not Ramon, BTW)

….. I feel the mere weight

of you in my arms as I lift you from the water

to drape you in a towel, I see the water

pool down into the drain and I think about how

tiny pieces of your newborn body will disappear

into the pipes below and be dispersed

among the rocks and soil and sand and clay.


(Anyone interested in reading the complete poem can find it at Damselfly Press online — see link at right!)

Interestingly, the chapbook of poems I’m currently finishing is called “All Roads Lead There.”  Threaded through this collection is this very notion — that all moments pass, all stories end, all life dies.  A little morbid, I suppose!  But it’s the ultimate truth of life.  I see one role of the poet, and of any artist, as that of the “Reminder.”  We work to remind ourselves and others that every moment is potentially rare and beautiful…. and therefore to try and pay closer attention to it.

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