Exploring the Elegy

Jeannie WoodJeannie Wood is a junior at the University of Arizona studying poetry, astronomy, and Latin. She’s from Northern Arizona and spends her time writing for the Daily Wildcat, playing rough with UA’s Derby Cats, and biking. She enjoys disappearing into different areas of the state, and parts of California, on weekends.

It’s October, which is the greatest month of the year because it brings Halloween. I don’t know about you, but Halloween is my favorite holiday -- we get to dress up wildly (or not) and gorge on sweet delicious things (or not) and spend a whole night having fun and enacting another world for a while (or not...but why not?) Not to mention, Tucson starts cooling down a little bit, giving us all a little break. In honor of this ghoulish month, we’re going to look at elegies, poems for the dead.

According to the Academy of American Poets, the elegy started as a poetic response to death in a metrical form. These days, an elegy isn’t always in metrical form, in fact, the two we’ll listen to aren’t, but all elegies traditionally mirror the three stages of loss 1.) expression of grief and sorrow 2.) idealization of the dead by admiration, and 3.) consolation.

David Wojahn’s White Lanterns is a seven-part elegy about the speaker’s accountant mother. Listen here, and read along here. What’s neat about this poem, is that it plays with time throughout the whole piece. Wojahn takes us back and forth from the 1960’s to the late 1980’s, showing the mother in her younger years from a child’s perspective, and then to her aging and ultimate death. Wojahn also weaves us through the three stages previously mentioned, but they aren’t in any overt order-- something the temporal changes aid. The speaker is obsessed with his mother’s lipstick, a characteristic that represents her younger vitality and precision, the latter being an important and constant attribute the speaker is sure to bring to our attention.

White Lanterns is a haunting poem, and not just because it’s about the speaker’s mother passing away. Wojahn uses words like “vapor,” “undertaker,” “caricature,” and “wig” that create eerie scenes. In a surprisingly spooky way, he also echoes the last line of each stanza as a way to start the next stanza. The second time we get the line, it’s changed almost for the worse (but in a good way). The image is twisted a little bit -- Wojahn doesn’t let us get away from the first image, he has to bring us back again with another version.

Why do you think that this technique is so effective in this elegy?

Paul Guest wrote a very different elegy about zombies titled Elegy for the Lumbering Monster. Listen here. It sounds silly to write about zombies, and maybe it kind of is, but Paul Guest is some genius and makes the poem extremely relevant, beyond being about a pop culture obsession. Guest is notable, I think, for his use of humour juxtaposed with a very individualized, yet universal, reality. In this poem, the speaker longs for the zombies of yesteryear and gives the reader a good visual image of this aged pop icon that has fallen out of favor. There is a direct conversation with the old school zombie and the speaker is brutally honest, but also admiring, pitying, and compassionate of the zombie’s current situation.

The work is fun, until the end where suddenly the speaker has brought himself into the poem, a sign to the reader that there has been a turn. And that’s just when things get scary, “my own end is what we don’t speak of, though in the marbled blindness of your eyes it’s easy to imagine, and I do, but away from me I run.” There is still some whimsy in this ending to the poem, some silliness to the word order of “but away from me I run,” and yet, it’s haunting. What makes it so scary is that the poem isn’t just about a pop culture icon anymore, it’s about humans and their immortality. It’s specifically about the speaker’s immortality. It’s ultimately an elegy for us, the humans, not just the zombies. Perhaps the scariest thing is not ghosts and ghouls, but acknowledging something so very human, and so very real, as death.

What did you find spooky about Guest’s elegy? Or was it mostly funny?

So, things got a little heavy, and that’s alright I think. Poetry is supposed to help us figure out what we don’t understand, and what we didn’t get to explore enough throughout the day. Wojahn’s elegy explores the relationship between the speaker and his mom, and Guest’s elegy explores the speaker’s desire to run from his fear... what better place to play and figure the scary stuff out than on the page?

Try writing your own elegy -- it can be anything! Silly, perhaps about the ant that got smushed on the sidewalk, or the loss of an apple because you ate it. Halloween is about being spooky and pretending to be what we’re scared of, so that maybe the next day, we aren’t so scared anymore -- use your poetry that way too, let it be scary, or scared, for you.

Created on: 
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Arizona Board of Regents