Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? (Hamlet, V.i)
Writing an Elegy
Poetry has, from its beginning days onward, been a tool of remembrance. From Homer’s Iliad through Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade to Pinsky’s 9/11, poetry has been used to remember people and events, both heroic and tragic. Poems of this type are called elegies.
As a form, the elegy is very flexible. The term elegy should not be confused with the similar term, eulogy, which is a speech given at a funeral. An elegy is a poem of mourning and reflection. The original elegies were written in elegiac meter. Elegiac meter consists of couplets composed of a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of dactylic pentameter. That traditional meter (we will discuss meter in greater depth soon) is no longer required for a poem to be an elegy. All that is required is that it remembers a person’s death or other tragic event such as a battle or a natural disaster.
Poems of this type tend to carry a lot of emotion. The feelings one has about a significant event, especially a tragic one, can be complex and even contradictory. You might mourn a friend or relative but still be angered by the choices they made. You might admire the heroism of battle but recognize its flaws. Poetry is one way to work through those emotions.
When approaching material of this sort, it can be emotionally draining but also cathartic. Many people carry around these emotions and thoughts without ever being able to express them or consciously deal with them. As a poet, you can at least put your thoughts on paper, which allows you to process those thoughts and come to some sort of emotional closure.
Today’s Poetry Assignment
Write an elegy about a person or event that is meaningful to you. You don’t necessarily have to approach the most tragic event in your life. Don’t try to take on an event that is still too difficult for you to deal with. Look for something that you can handle.
Today’s Recommended Poet
Dean Young is a poet whose influence seems to increase with each new work. His poetry tends toward the surreal, but is always insightful and often genuinely funny. His poem Elegy on a Toy Piano is written for fellow poet Kenneth Koch, one of the Twentieth Century’s true greats. Don’t hesitate to read Kenneth Koch, but because my recommendations are based on working poets, please try Dean Young first. He’s still alive and worthy of a long look.