Stephen Sexton on the mutable parameters of elegy
Hail starts its patter and John joins me in the gazebo. I don’t know John, but we will talk, and thereafter nod hello to each other in the breakfast room, the lounge and the bar. I’m in the Donegal Gaeltacht, in a country hotel at the base of Errigal, in Dunlewey, near The Poisoned Glen, so-called by a quirk of translation. As I learn, an English cartographer misheard or misnoted An Gleann Neimhe (The Poisoned Glen) when he ought to have heard or noted An Gleann Neamhe (The Heavenly Glen). There’s something of a heaven to it: the clear water, the uninhabited, rust-coloured bogland disturbed only by the pylons of telegraph wires. Errigal, 751 metres at its peak, glows pink when sunlight reflects off its crystals of quartzite, and is known too for the fact it seems to change shape depending on the direction from which one views it, appearing as a different mountain in different contexts.
On something of a break, I figure I’ll spend the time gathering my thoughts about the elegy, and what manner of a thing it is: the messiness and imprecision of death and remembrance, the no-right-way of grief which makes the elegy’s ambit and jurisdiction so vast and various as to draw in – by gravitation almost – almost anything. It feels that, by simply thinking about it, by establishing the context of elegy – most typically through one’s own experience of grief – the world may be read according to another schema: those objects and poems one feels are known and understood show new edges, or resonate with different overtones. I’m inclined to think that, more than a genre or a mode, the elegy is a context: the glen which is either poisoned or heavenly, or both. What I’m particularly interested in is the imperceptible change a photograph, say, undergoes when someone depicted in it has died; how these images seem, somehow, utterly changed without having changed at all.
There is an avariciousness to the elegy: it wants the universes of after death and before death. More than a way of reading, what it is exactly is hard to be sure of. The elegy takes into its orbit all kinds of forms and registers; it cherishes and challenges, reminisces and invents, instructs and destructs. In both the classical and the modern sense, it’s best understood as a poem or text in memory of a dead person, though there are exceptions: Thomas Pfau notes that the elegy of the seventh century BCE is one that takes up ‘a considerable variety of themes (fatherland, war, politics, the power of eros)’. Centuries later, the elegy’s primary concern is the dead.
Nevertheless, it’s complicated. In this millennium, Larry Levis’s posthumous collection Elegy, for instance, contains not many elegies in the sense we understand the term. Many of the poems are, however, titled things like: ‘Elegy with a Petty Thief in the Rigging’, ‘Elegy with the Sprawl of a Wave Inside It’, ‘Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside It’, ‘Elegy with a Chimneysweep Falling Inside It’. In the same way that not every poem with ‘Elegy’ in its title might concern a death, not every poem with a death in it might be considered an elegy. Edna St Vincent Millay’s cool sonnet of qualification and subclause, ‘If I should learn, in some quite casual way’, might be paraphrased to:
If I should learn, in some quite casual way, That you were gone, not to return again – [...] I should but watch the station lights rush by With a more careful interest on my face, Or raise my eyes and read with greater care Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.
This opens onto tricky territory, since refusing to grieve is a perfectly acceptable and understandable form of grieving. Millay’s poem hinges on the contingency of ‘If’, and we’re inclined to read this poem as not being concerned with a real death, but an imagined one. We rely, then, on the conventional markers for the avoidance of doubt: Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam A H H’; Sharon Olds’s ‘Cambridge Elegy’ (‘for Henry Averell Gerry, 1941–60’); Paul Muldoon’s ‘Incantata’ (‘In memory of Mary Farl Powers’). When I suggest the elegy might draw almost anything into its orbit, I mean not just content or tone or form, but even the acknowledgment of the poem as elegy. Michael Longley has said that all love poems are elegies and all elegies love poems. The poems listed above are certainly love poems, but are more obviously elegies. In Robert Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’ one may detect an elegiac aura, but it’s more so a love poem and more so still a poem of a son’s relationship with his father. As soon as a poem or sequence of poems is declared an elegy, every aspect of it is active, in one way or another, in the development and enlargement of its elegiac qualities, even instances which refuse to acknowledge elegy, or moments of surreality or non-sequitur.
Errigal’s name comes from the Latin orare (to pray), and the mountain itself might be named for an oratory which was there once. In the gazebo, John and I are pleasant to each other. He asks me if it’s work or a holiday that has me in Donegal. I tell him, and put the same question to him. He tells me – speaking as if it’s been rehearsed – that, for him, it’s a few days of rest after a major operation a few weeks ago. He’s learned, though, that the cancer’s spread to a few organs and the doctor says there’s nothing to be done about it now. He has two years or thereabouts. For the next ten minutes, he talks openly and expressively about his life and the jobs he’s done: selling business contracts in the early days of mobile phones (a licence to print money). He tells me about his kids, how young they are, how much they know so far about his condition. I say there’s no right age to experience it and he agrees. He tells me about his parents and grandparents. His father was a church minister, his grandparents were from this part of the world and never went abroad once. For his part, he’s ordered a new car, and is going to make the most of what he has. He’s going to New York and Montenegro. He’s going to see the Northern Lights from a Nordic cruise. He asks me what I do, and I tell him. He says he didn’t do so well at English in school. I say that whatever I do and what he did aren’t that dissimilar, both being technologies of communication. His phone rings, and he takes it.
One of the things death does, says David Kennedy, is that it ‘reduces the subject of an elegy to a finite, readable system. The body can no longer give birth to any new meanings of itself’. In other words, death renders a person into a text. Part of the elegy’s remit is to translate and interpret that text however faithfully or obliquely as seems appropriate. The idea of reduction here is essential. The amount of information associated with a person’s life (biographical as well as private and emotional) is incalculably vast compared to what can be communicated in an elegy. Communication via telephone, for instance, functions by transmitting certain frequencies and excluding others; the voice is stripped of its natural resonances, and a compression of it reaches the other end. There is always loss.
As well as a kind of technology, I’m inclined to think of the elegy as a kind of translation, since the processes* involved in each are sympathetic to one another. Where a simple model of translation shows a source text being transformed into a target text, we might, in these poems of mourning, see the elegiac subject transformed into the elegy, by one or some of any number of formal or stylistic approaches.
It’s a process which is at the heart of Anne Carson’s Nox (2010), in which translation and elegy are entirely intertwined. Carson’s elegy for her brother is constituted partly of the fragments of his life: photographs, drawings, etchings, letters and general ephemera, but at its heart the book (in a box) is a translation of Catullus’ Poem 101, an elegy for his brother. Carson goes about arriving at this translation by offering a kind of invented crib sheet for every word of the Latin. Rhetorically, this adopts one of the conventions of the elegy, a kind of mastery of language: the idea, however sanguine, that perfecting the language of the elegiac work might allow that work a greater efficacy. Here, poetry’s relationship with ritual
and magic enjoys a particular intimacy. As we know from The Simpsons and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (programmes that run in great slaloms through the Sunday schedules), for the spell (appellation; naming) to succeed, it must be uttered or performed with absolute clarity and precision. In most cases, there are consequences for getting the spell wrong, the most desirable of which is that nothing happens.
Auden delights in the ambiguity of that phrase, issuing his famous claim that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. One wonders where the stress should fall here: does it mean that poetry makes nothing happen, or that it makes nothing happen? Either way, it’s hard to escape the irony that this philosophical credo about the uselessness of poetry occurs in the space of a poem, and more than that in an elegy for a particular poetic forebear, Yeats. Elegiac doubt is another convention of this kind of poem: the impulse to speak, to say something, especially in the knowledge that it will not satisfactorily console, that least of all will it restore or undo, and that ultimately one’s articulation may not even be intelligible. Sharon Olds’s ‘Cambridge Elegy’ begins:
I hardly know how to speak to you now, you are so young now, closer to my daughter’s age than mine – but I have been there and seen it, and must tell you, as the seeing and hearing spell the world into the deaf-mute’s hand.
Here is loss again, and lack, and translation.
In her lecture on Denise Riley’s ‘A Part Song’, Sinéad Morrissey expresses this succinctly: ‘So it’s as though, in the end, the point of the poem is to say that lyric is hopeless, except that it isn’t, except that it is, except that isn’t, and so on’. For the elegist, some of that hopefulness is involved with their powers of invention and representation: they may indeed succeed in rendering an image of the deceased; they may compose their spell with such sophistication that the loved one is reanimated, if only in the realm of the poem. The modern elegy is, as Jahan Ramazani calls it, ‘a compromise-formation’, a negotiation between the necessity of saying something and the well- founded suspicion one won’t be able to get it right.
One of my favourite elegies (if one should have such a thing) is Jack Gilbert’s ‘Finding Something’, a poem written for his wife, Michiko Nogami. The poem seems to enact a limit of expression; its language is dented by grief in such a way that its metaphorical tools malfunction. If a metaphor or simile might, among other things, be primarily useful for clarification, in this poem, the vehicles seem driverless. The poem begins: ‘I say moon is horses in the tempered dark, / because horse is the closest I can get to it’. ‘It’, we suppose from later in the poem, is Michiko’s death (‘How strange and fine to get so near to it’), but whatever it is in singular, several of them in the tempered dark become the moon. From the very beginning, the shift from the opening line to the second renders the first inexact. All of this is, however, correct in the realm of the poem and whatever pressures death or whatever kind of a pre-death state terminal illness establishes. Generally speaking, the poem, like many poems, is about itself and its technologies of communication and translation. The speaker sits
on the terrace of this worn villa the king’s telegrapher built on the mountain that looks down on a blue sea and the small white ferry that crosses slowly to the next island each noon.
The poem’s final sentence is a flourish of images wherein the speaker’s rather dispassionate or stoical pose collapses into something else: ‘The arches of her feet are like voices / of children calling in the grove of lemon trees, / where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds’. Where before the faculties of description managed to make images of the scene of the poem, the attempt to describe Michiko results in a simile rapidly ranging out of control. It’s as though we’re allowed to watch the poem ‘fail’ to communicate, even if that ‘failure’ is how grief is most successfully expressed.
As we are all grateful for and never tire of hearing, poems are for the majority of people devices one reaches for at weddings and funerals. In the case of the latter, there’s a comfort in a piece of language external and adjacent to one’s grief, especially if, in the mouth of it, so to speak, one’s talents for articulation are compromised or out of service. In many cases the elegist, too, leans on other texts, as in Nox, where Anne Carson writes through Catullus 101. The poems in Síofra McSherry’s recent Emma Press pamphlet, Requiem, are ‘structured around the Catholic Requiem Mass and cover the timespan of an illness, death, and burial’. In its opening poem, the sense of bewilderment responsible for the intertext is made explicit: ‘Before you sense is scattered and meaning lies in ruin’. Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press) is a work of prose intimately connected with the translation of an elegy: Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (Lament for Art O’Leary). Elegies chart how one context is different from another, how after is different from before; they touch on what Walter Benjamin called the afterlife of texts in his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’. The elegy is concerned with the afterlife of its subject, in the greatest poignancy of their death.
In my own approach to elegy, I considered the ‘text’ that is Super Mario World because – as I suggest above with photographs – it seemed fundamentally changed compared with the video game I had played as a child. After my mother died, the whole world of the game seemed entirely different, yet it hadn’t changed a bit (pun intended). I figured that if elegy is already involved with, or perhaps entirely composed of, failures of communication, I would attempt to render Super Mario World into poems, a process that eventually led to my first collection, If All the World and Love Were Young. I couldn’t, however, experience it in any other context than the context of grief. Without entirely meaning to, I ended up with an elegy.
After John and I have spoken, I go indoors and start making notes. Then, as now, one of the most striking things about our conversation is its frankness. If metaphor represents a kind of limit of language or knowability, John has no need for any; it’s all my doing. In the bar, the off- season tracklist plays ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Tears in Heaven’ – both elegies of some kind – among others my thinking obscures. The exact impulse which causes me to record this conversation escapes me. I was moved by his openness and matter-of-factness. It doesn’t escape me, though, that one ought to be responsible with the materials and moments of a person’s life, if you’re fortunate enough to participate in it, however briefly. The ethics of elegy are complex, and most of those are related to the terrible economy of elegy: the subject is lost, but the elegy is gained. As Sabrina knows, there are risks involved in making something out of nothing – it goes beyond the usual laws of time and space.
John will stay on for another day or two after we check out. On our way home, I’m not sure if it’s by the same road we came to the hotel by, or another around the base of Errigal. The mountain we didn’t recognise on arrival is the mountain we don’t recognise when we leave.
* a discourse or treatise on an art or the arts,’ from Greek tekhnologia ‘systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique,’ originally referring to grammar, from tekhno-, combining form of tekhne– ‘art, skill, craft in work; method, system, an art, a system or method of making or doing’ (www.etymonline.com/search?q=technology).
Stephen Sexton’s first book, If All the World and Love Were Young, was the winner of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He is the recipient of the 2020 E M Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.