Life Vol.1, No.4 – Poets on Death

End of Life No. 4 – Yogi Berra is credited with saying something like, “If you come to my funeral I promise I’ll come to yours.” In earlier posts within the end of life series I touched on weighty issues like euthanasia and dementia. We’re not finished exploring end of life issues, but as a rest before the next phase of the exploration, I decided to see what some poets have to say. If we can’t face death with insight or even humor, we might miss out on what the experience has to offer.

The great thing about good poets is that they tend to write about what is influencing them at the moment. As they mature, they often develop a skill that reduces common experience into language that inspires and informs. Unfortunately, the good poets are hidden among the bad so reaching out to poets at the moment we need inspiration can lead to frustration. Risking that, I highly recommend poets.org where over time you can find the voices that tend to sit well with you. Among those voices I currently favor Billy Collins.

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read,

never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

These opening lines from “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins ring true to me. As I age I’m losing memories, the names of philosophers and the arguments they advanced, even memories of who I once was. It is at once a cruel and humorous situation that Billy somehow makes less painful through his poem. If you enjoy hearing Billy Collins read “Forgetfulness” try reading “The First Night.” After death there is that first night. The funeral is ended, the living have gone home, sun sets. Collins writes, “How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death, How impossible to write it down.” This sentiment echoes throughout literature. It seems to be a starting point for poets and writers alike as they approach death, though it’s been stated so many times in so many ways that many simply avoid the cliché.

We can’t take death all that seriously if we are to be happy. In the humorous drama Death Knocks, by Woody Allen, Death stumbles through an open window into the apartment of Nat. He trips on the window sill and says, “Jesus Christ. I nearly broke my neck.” Nat goes on to win a gin rummy game and cheat death out of some cash and an extra day. W. Somerset Maugham is quoted as saying “Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it.” Elbert Hubbard said the definition of death is “to stop sinning suddenly.” Clarence Darrow said, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure” and Bill Maher said, “Suicide is man’s way of telling God, “You can’t fire me – I quit.”

We need humor, appreciate profound sentiments, and recall moments when we thought of death in new ways, but however we attend to the subject, we must all recognize that culture shifts how we think about death. Here’s an example. For centuries we have used the phrase ‘cheating death’. I Googled the phrase “cheat death” today. The first hundred or more of the 39,000 results are for a ‘cheat’ in the video game ‘World of Warcraft’. The searcher encounters language like this: “The resilience required to reach the 90% damage reduction cap is 22.5%.” I find this humorous and curious at the same time. We live in a culture where death itself is something of a fantasy, a hazy moment in future tense. Knowing this, I have come to appreciate aging poets and great writers, who for the most part, write to their circumstance.

Before going on, I provide this disclaimer. I’m not a poet, nor am I erudite in the subjects of poetry or even classical literature. Like many of you I appreciate poetry but haven’t had the discipline to wade through the noise. There are thousands of poems on the subjects of aging and death, many of them thought provoking and well worth the hunt and I’m happy to say I’ve found a few you may enjoy. Others, even very popular poems like “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas, I find somehow less applicable. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”A beautiful sentiment, but in the end most of us will have the rage knocked out of us regardless of our courage.

Here are a few poems that speak to me. Affirmation by Donald Hall, Age by Robert Creeley, Fear of the Future by John Koethe, In View of the Fact by A. R. Ammons. This kind of fire by Charles Bukowski comes close to saying life doesn’t turn out to be what we hoped. So be it.

One of my favorite writers is John Updike. His accomplishments, and the ease with which he wore life, constantly amazed. At the age of 76, he died of lung cancer while under Hospice care in Massachusetts. But before his death, he wrote a three stanza poem called, “Requiem.” It was published by Alfred A. Knopf (ASIN: B0024CEZ3U) in Endpoint and Other Poems, a short collection of his poetry.

Reprinted (so far without permission) from a Reuters article entitled “U.S. writer John Updike pondered death in new poem.”

Requiem
by John Updike

It came to me the other day:

Were I to die, no one would say,

‘Oh, what a shame! So young, so full

Of promise – depths unplumbable!

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes

Will greet my overdue demise;

The wide response will be, I know,

‘I thought he died a while ago.’

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,

And death is real, and dark, and huge.

The shock of it will register

Nowhere but where it will occur.

The Buddha said, “we live in a house on fire.” Updike may never have heard that admonishment, but all the same he speaks to the inevitable unifying factor of death through a similar metaphor in the poem, Burning Trash. We come to our end from disparate places, our minds caught and precariously organized around used-up news, string, napkins, envelopes, and paper cups, the residue of our existence. We are thrown up, put into disarray and finally consumed by this unifying phenomenon we call death. As the Bible says in poetic fashion, we are made dust to dust.

If the poets cannot completely describe it, and descriptions from every institution we know fall short, how are we to think of our own death? Maybe there is no benefit of stewing over the issue. Soon enough we are gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond. So be it.

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