Write an Elegy – 31p31d

Day 8 of 31 Poems in 31 Days

Because of the sores in his mouth,   
the great poet struggles with a dumpling.   
His work has enlarged the world   
but the world is about to stop including him.   
He is the tower the world runs out of.  
– From Dean Young’s Elegy on a Toy Piano

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.

Taken at Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery  on Memorial Day 2014
Taken at Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery on Memorial Day 2014

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.

Poems on the web

Books by Dean Young

Liked it? Take a second to support John Hewitt on Patreon!
  • Ode to Travels Not To Be Taken

    It is time to pack the
    suitcase of dreams of
    picking up and dropping
    it all – wandering wantonly
    dancing barefoot on the
    shores of some foreign isle
    it is time to embrace the
    comfortable waltz of
    sweet safe surroundings
    with dreams dancing
    in the sunset

  • Leigh Spencer

    Elegy Postponed

    He died today
    She was matter of fact in the telling

    One hand on the phone
    the other reaching for the suitcase
    the black slacks

    But wait

    No service
    Not yet

    To be thrifty
    of resource and time
    we’ll just wait
    until she’s dead too

    Two memorials
    Two sets of ashes
    One goodbye

    Sound equation
    for an economy of grief

    Ignoring sounds of pain
    from hearts craving closure
    and ceremony due
    to a remarkable life
    that shaped us all

    She can always mourn in her own way

    The fact that he’s gone
    The fact that she’s next
    The fact that everyone’s just waiting now

    I cry
    Now

    They knew I would
    They think I’m being silly

    But none of this is about me
    I hardly knew him, really

    For all I owe to him
    I need to remind myself
    I’m not really family
    Not really

    They’ll do as they see fit

    I’ll keep quiet
    I’ll keep
    my black slacks ironed
    and ready to go

  • poewar

    For Squiggy

    Hope then fear
    A squiggly line
    No heartbeat
    A start unbegun
    Barely known
    But mine nonetheless
    My never child
    A life unlived
    A path unwalked
    Amiss amiss