Any loss perpetuates grief, and conversely, grieving is the humankind's way of dealing with loss. William Faulkner says, "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief." Without adequate grieving, we lose our spontaneity and our sense of being alive. Life turns into something to endure and the world feels like a hostile place.
One way to mourn loss is to write about our feelings and what we have lost, but then, there are feelings for which straight prose is not always adequate, since grief refuses to accept definition. In this instance, poetry fills the gap, because poetry has the capacity to imply a lot more than what prose can achieve. Also, a poem publicizes and legitimizes our grief, making the community draw closer to us in our pain.
Probably, poetry for loss has existed before any written history. Since poetry is originally oral, it carries within itself a very long history. One of the earliest epic poems we know of is the Sumerian Gilgamesh. Inside this poem, the mighty Gilgamesh laments the death of his friend Enkidu and orders the creation to never fall silent in mourning.
The epics of Ramayana, Iliad, and Odyssey contain serious laments about the nature of loss through poetry. In Ramayana, Raja Dasharatha grieves just before his death, lamenting:
when the the season for fruit cometh he will grieve!
So is it now with me: I die of grief for Rama's exile."
After Raja dies, he too is grieved by Ayodha.
In Odyssey, Homer says:
"Even his griefs are a joy
long after to one that remembers
all that he wrought and endured.
Then, in the Iliad, Achilles' grieves.
“Why mourns my son? thy late preferr’d request
The god has granted, and the Greeks distress’d:
Why mourns my son? thy anguish let me share,
Reveal the cause, and trust a parent’s care.”
He, deeply groaning—“To this cureless grief,
Not even the Thunderer’s favour brings relief.
In the Jewish tradition, a poem was the most powerful way to express grief. It probably started with David's dirge urging the Israelites to teach their children to weep and mourn. The same feeling is echoed in the Latin hymn Dies Irae where David's word is mentioned in the first stanza.
A grief poem or an elegy has always been a balm against despair. Classic or Romantic Age poets and poets up to our day have used grief to announce to the world that pain eventually teaches us solid values and an understanding of the human experience.
Of all the grieving poets, Edgar Allen Poe has raised his sorrows to the altar of poetry. Who can forget the mourning in Annabel Lee, in the mystery of Ulalume, or in Raven's bleak utterings of "nevermore"? Then, closer to our time, Whitman created a true monument for Lincoln, in "O Captain! My Captain!"
Today, contemporary poets choose a more poignant attitude towards grief. Late Stanley Kunitz's "Night Letter," Billy Collins' "The Dead," and Jane Kenyon's "Coat," are examples that come to mind. Rather than using expected phrases and conventional lamenting, these poets hint at their sorrow by shaping their lines around concrete images and physical objects. As a result, their poetry carries a genuine voice with a delicate and powerful expression of feeling.