Search PennSound

Death Poems & PennSound

by Thomas Devaney

Hear a PennSound podcast featuring Devaney's selection

See Devaney's selection

Bold as it is manifold, the immense PennSound archives is a non-linear treasury of recent poetic history.

I recently had the pleasure to spend a week listening my way through the archives to select the Winter 2006-2007 PennSound "featured mp3s." The feature tracks include poems by: Elizabeth Willis, James Tate, Joe Brainard, Fanny Howe, Bob Holman, CK Williams, Anne Waldman & Ted Berrigan, John Yau, Aaron Kunin, Susan Stewart, Peter Gizzi, Jennifer Moxley, Allen Ginsberg.

I did not set out to cull "death poems" from the expansive audio archive. Instead I only discovered this connection after the fact when the feature was posted "live" on PennSound. At that point, apprehending the emerging motif, I replaced two of the selections to better play into my passing theme-driven thoughts. So death was not, and is not, the main focus of the poems, but is a focus.

Whatever death poetry is, one thing it's not for these poems, is an expression of grief about dying. To make the distinction clear: I found a popular and suspect definition of poetry about death on the League of American Poets website. The "Poetry about Death" entry reads:

Poetry is a great way to get in touch with our sad feelings. To sit down with paper and pen, to delve into our subconscious, to expose our true feelings, to turn feelings into words.

According to the League of American Poets poetry--and especially death poetry--is essentially self-expression. I am not altogether against "self-expression," especially in death poems, which might actually instruct us in our very real grief. But those good death poems are as rare as our grief and bad death poems are painfully abundant, and in fact, the bad death poems may have the unintended effect of actually amplifying grief, instead of assuaging it. So it is necessary to say with some firmness that this selection is not an exercise in explicit self-expression. This selection of death poems has, I hope, a much greater veracity, irreverence, and life-force.

Archives being archives truck in the dead. The PennSound archives are filled with mostly living poets and many dead poets whose work continues to live far beyond them. Below are some brief comments on death and poetry on each of the selected tracks.

(December 20, 2006.)

Death Poems & PennSound

MP3 selection with notes by Thomas Devaney

Elizabeth Willis's l'humour noir poem "Kiss Me Deadly" invokes and channels Cristina Rossti. Down to business, Willis closes her compact piece, writing: "She has come from the dead to be remembered/ and if she has to kill come someone, well, that's poetry."

James Tate's poem "Dream On" is a virtuoso high-wire act about our daily lives and poetry. Death may be a given in life, but conclusions about it are far from foregone. Tate writes: "The hereafter may not last all that long."

In a disarmingly mordant section of "I Remember," Joe Brainard artfully and matter-of fact writes: "I remember fantasies of everyone in my family dying in a car wreck, except me, and getting a lot of sympathy and attention and admiration for being so brave about it all."

"One cadaver said to the other cadaver you're my cadaver" is the first line of Fanny Howe's anti-prodigal prodigal poem "Basic Science." Howe may be one of the most convincing poets currently writing about and on a sense of the spiritual and the afterlife in her work. Here in her "Basic Science" she swiftly tips us off balance and keeps us there.

There has never been a poem less about death than Bob Holman's life-infused "Praise Poem Elizabeth Murray." That said, Holman's vivacious praise poem is included here (in this, often extrahuman, selection) for one reason: it is death-defying.

CK Williams's poem "Oh" is a death poem of exasperation and fascination. William's sets up this poem by off-handedly quizzing the auidience if they "have ever heard of the poet Harold Brodkey." It's an anxious question no doubt. "Oh" is a narrative poem (in the form's most open-ended sense) about how the impertinent work and life of Brodkey lives on in Williams.

In an abiding and stunning moment of "Memorial Day" by Ted Berrigan and Ann Waldman, the poets write: "The angles that surround me die, they kiss death and they die, they always die."

Hungarian-born actor Peter Lorre, veteran of 80 films including Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and the big dark-eyed evil scientist in many Bugs Bunny cartoons is the poster-child of all death poems. John Yau's rip-roaring poem "Peter Lorre Reminisces about Being a Sidekick" fuses Lorre's visage with what Baudelaire called "The region of pure poetry." (It's no accident Lorre's eulogy was delivered by his close friend Vincent Price.)

Aaron Kunin's poem "The Sore Throat," is not about death, and not about a sore throat either. It's a mediation that goes headlong to the brink of its poetic limit. It's not exactly clear if Kunin is pulling a deus ex machine sleight-of-hand, or the god from the poem machine has truly taken over.

The first stanza of Susan Stewart's poem "Apple" speaks for itself:

If I could come back from the dead, I would come back
for an apple, and just for the first bite, the first
break, and the cold sweet grain
against the roof of the mouth, as plain
and clear as water.

"It's good to be dead in America," is the first line of Peter Gizzi's tour de force modified list poem "Revival." The dialectic forces at-work here create and shape Gizzi's driving fuse-box lines, which ends in, and on, the word "dust."

"The objects have gone silence," is the first line of Jennifer Moxley's poem "On This Side Nothing." This is not a death poem, though there is a consciousness of death at the edges of this poem of edges. Moxely writes "we are at worst, on this side, nothing."

Ginsberg's little-known poem "To Lindsay," which (we hear here) is his trembling tribute to the long-dead, little-read poet Vachel Lindsay. By way of introduction (recorded in 1959) Ginsberg says: "A short poem to Vachel Lindsay who committed suicide in 1931." The last few lines of this modest gem, starting with "I see your shadow on the wall" to the poem's end, are simply dead-on.

(December 20, 2006)

These sound recordings are being made available for noncommercial and educational use only. All rights to this recorded material belong to the author. © 2004 Thomas Devaney. Used with permission of Thomas Devaney. Distributed by PennSound.