Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Lost Vocabularies: On Contemporary Elegy

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Lost Vocabularies: On Contemporary Elegy

Article excerpt

As I begin my exploration into today's efforts at writing memorable elegies, I find I return to a graffito on the front of a condemned corner bakery in Richmond, Virginia. Some rogue street artist had spray-painted the bust of one of our foremost contemporary elegists, the late Larry Levis, over the bakery's white door. Levis wrote the poems in his posthumous collection, Elegy, in Richmond, where he taught at Virginia Commonwealth University until his death in 1996. I first noticed the portrait on my way to VCU. A blustery March wind flapped the door's tattered wire screen, which partially veiled the portrait. I stopped short, wide-eyed and amused, though I was late for a departmental meeting. The artist had captured Levis' wily mustache and caterpillar eyebrows in thick, stylized black strokes, and, as a final touch, spray-painted the epitaph "Larry Levis, Poet" across his chest in red. I snapped a photo with my cell phone and joined the crowd of students crossing the street.

For weeks I'd pass the illicit portrait as I zigzagged through the cobblestone alleys to campus. Often, as I approached the bakery, a chestnut-colored pit bull would poke his furrowed head over the ledge of the upper balcony, where several windows were boarded up with drywall, and bark furiously. I guessed the dog's owners were the two squatter punks I'd occasionally see crouched on the buckling front stoop beneath the spicy smoke of their clove cigarettes. One day the punks left their perch, taking their dog with them. The graffito also vanished, but not before Levis grew sloping horns one week, and a black goatee the next - other spray-painters' devilish contributions. Some dutiful city worker eventually whitewashed the image back into the void of the empty bakery.

When I think of the portrait and its sudden disappearance, I like to imagine the spray-painter as an elegist: a lover and mourner of people and things that vanish. "It's not easy in our time to tell / a mourner by how she's dressed," writes Beckian Fritz Goldberg in her poem "Elegy." I take her point. Dressing in black for a year at the office would arouse suspicions, no doubt, about a certain someone's offbeat obsession with Victoriana, if not openly invite the psychward nurses to arrive with their butterfly nets. How do we, then, grieve and remember the dead in meaningful ways? Under George W. Bush, we were denied even a televised glimpse at the thousands of coffins of American soldiers killed in Iraq. Death has become increasingly remote, and mourning a decidedly private and sterilized affair: We are to tick through those four neat "stages" of grief as if crossing off "snow peas," "kiwi," "ciabatta," and "mango sorbet" from a Whole Foods grocery list. For these reasons, the poet's struggle to find adequate language for the agony of mortal loss seems both more difficult and essential than ever.

Though my subject is the contemporary elegy, it's helpful to consider the genre's origins. "Elegy," from the Greek "elegaia" for "lament," originally referred to any poem written in elegiac meter (alternating hexameter and pentameter lines); the poem might well mourn the dead, but it could just as easily be a love lyric or political satire. The Romans understood it in the same way, and even in the English tradition the term encompassed, as late as the early seventeenth century, a wide range of content. When, in 1611, Donne described one part of "Anatomy of the World" as a "funeral elegy," the definition began to edge toward the one we're familiar with today, and a quarter-century later Milton greatly accelerated the shift with his influential "Lycidas." Elegy, then, in the modern sense, is characterized by its subject matter and not its form, though plenty of elegies are composed in traditional forms. (Who hasn't envied Elizabeth Bishop's deft villanelle "One Art" for its grace and deliciously wry conceit?)

While many elegists lament the deaths of specific people, they sometimes address mortality on a broader scale, as in Rilkes Duino Elegies (1912-22) and Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1757). …

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