death poems

2 posts

The Special Day We Don’t Know (Yet)

From an early age, we are attuned to our special day, our birthday. We remember nothing of that perilous journey, of course, but our mothers will be happy to fill in all the missing details.

Over time, birthdays devolve into a familiar ritual of well-wishes, birthday gifts, and a fiery cake accompanied by a monotonous ditty. They also become reminders of the approaching other.

Think about it. Each year we lap another special day on the calendar, our birth date’s dark cousin (a. k. a. “the other”). Each year it smiles as we pass, nodding its head in that knowing way. This would be that patient trickster known as our death day.

After both are revealed, commemorating one special day over another can be a problem. The Kennedy family, for instance, would prefer that people not remember President John Fitzgerald Kennedy by the date of his assassination: November 22nd. They’d prefer people celebrate JFK’s life on his birthdate: May 29th. Unfortunately, people of an age (read: “old”) only think of the man on 11-22 because of ’63.

W. S. Merwin wrote a poem about the special day allotted to each of us — the one we choose to ignore. It is called, appropriately enough, “For the Anniversary of My Death.”


For the Anniversary of My Death
W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what


The first stanza is the living speaker, the second the speaker familiar with his formerly secret “deathday.” Stanza one offers some alliteration (“will wave” and “Tireless traveller”) as well as a rather oxymoronic contrast via simile: “Like the beam of a lightless star.”

I like how silence is depicted as a tireless traveller happy to never break its silence for eternity. If you’ve ever been frustrated by the dead’s refusal to yield up their secrets, you can identify.

In the second stanza, we get the wonderful metaphor of life as a “strange garment,” which makes sense given we exist for an eternity before birth and will exist again for an eternity after death. Clearly non-existence is the more familiar of garments.

As for life, it’s the mere blip between. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, a man attuned to his approaching secret day, pounds away at this fact of death (you thought I was going to say “life”?).

Merwin remains in the abstract with the “love of one women” and “the shamelessness of men” (something news readers and students of history can relate to). Then he shifts to the concrete with the last three lines.

Here we have three days of rain. Here we have a wren singing and “the falling cease / And bowing not knowing to what.” The word “falling” is nifty in that it ostensibly refers to the aforementioned rain but works just as well for the more Biblical falling of man. You know, the broken contract, wherein Adam & Eve lost their franchise, The Garden of Eden, and got stuck with this problematic death thing along with a host of other woes. Thanks, Adam & Eve.

As for “not knowing to what,” that brings us around to the great mystery again, the driving force behind all great literature: death. And yes, death will have its day.

Anyway, it’s a small outing for Merwin written in his characteristic, no-punctuation style, but I like how it reminds us of the thing we prefer to ignore, especially in modern day. Death was more a part of living in olden times. People were waked in the living room (ironically) of their homes, then buried by family.

Now the dying are hustled out of sight into nursing homes and hospitals. Funeral parlors are paid outrageous sums to take care of everything so the living can continue to pretend that they are immortal, even though they logically know they are not.

Birthday, Deathday. We should all wish ourselves a happy one of each and remind ourselves we’ll be blowing out the candles for good come “the other.”


Why Death Is Literature’s Wingman

If you’ve ever taught literature, whether in college or in secondary school, you’ve surely come up against a common complaint from students: “Why is everything we read so depressing?” or, “Is every book, story, and poem about death, or is it just my imagination?”

Tongue in cheek, I always replied, “You’ll be happy to know that death is the great Muse, the inspiration, on some level, of much of the great literature we read and remember down through the ages.”

The students, few of whom would grow up to become English teachers, seemed less than impressed with that answer.

It all came back to me in reading Charles Baxter’s collection of essays on literature, Burning Down the House. One essay I particularly enjoyed is called “Regarding Happiness.” He opens it with an anecdote that I, as a poet and author of two books, could relate to. Let me share it:

“After a small press published my first book of poetry in 1970, I happened to be visiting my parents for a few days. On one particular evening late in my visit, my mother sat down with me during cocktail hour, a time when she often appeared to be emboldened. She held my book in her hand. Her martini was nearby, within easy reach. She studied me with a frozen smile and altered her position slightly on the sofa to give the impression that she felt relaxed; this impression failed.

“‘I’ve read your book,’ my mother said, digging for a cigarette in a mostly empty pack, having put down the book by now on the sofa cushion. She lit the cigarette, taking her time; she was in no hurry. She inhaled, and as she asked her question, smoke blew out of her nose and mouth. ‘My question is, when are you going to write a happy poem?’

“Thirty-seven years later, I cannot remember what I replied, but I hope I didn’t say what probably occurred to me: ‘Well, OK, when I’m happy, then I’ll write a happy poem.’

“Questions like the one my mother posed seem innocent, even comical, but after all, she was my  parent and was probably dismayed by my poetry and by the thoughts, images, and feelings displayed within it. Good! I wanted my poetry to dismay everybody. That was its purpose.”

Baxter’s memory resonated with me in particular because I have heard the same complaint about my collections of poetry. One GoodReads reviewer, who even took the time to cut and paste his review into Amazon, titled his review, quite simply, “Depressing.” He gave the offending depression 3 stars out of 5. I’m not sure what he gave the poetry.

As for my parents, unlike Baxter’s mother, they never directly spoke of my poems’ preoccupation with the great mystery of life (read: non-life), but I suppose the thought occurred to them as well. Why so much death? My parents place that topic in the same category as religion and politics and money: all verboten topics in polite company.

The Buddhists, among others, think differently. They counsel that we think about death and dying early and often. For them, it is a reminder of our brevity and insignificance, of our purpose while we’re here in the now, of our obligations not to desire stuff because that is the source of our misery.

Later in the essay, Baxter tells of assigning Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” to his undergraduates. Though the story unfolds in the shadow of death (a soldier returned to Michigan after WW I), it is surely as close to happiness as the protagonist, Nick Adams, is going to get. He is out in nature alone, doing what he loves to do (fishing), far away from his fellow man, far from the demons he met on the death fields of Europe.

When Baxter assigns this story to his undergraduates in college, they typically complain,”There’s no story!” and “Where’s the plot?” and “Nothing happens!”

Baxter writes: “To which my answer always has been: ‘Didn’t you ask for a story about  happiness? Well, here it is. You said you wanted happiness, but when I present it to you, you find it dull and empty’.”

You can’t win for losing, is the point. That and the fact that death, along with its depressing processional, always makes for better literature than happiness, which is best pursued without being captured (if it can be at all).

A final note. In his essay, Baxter shares a quote I quite like from Oscar Levant: “Happiness isn’t something  you experience; it’s something you remember.”

Reading this, it dawned on me that memory is like Loki the Trickster of Norse lore. It burnishes the past and makes it shine. It rids itself of any unpleasant dross. In hindsight, it looks so good that we realize we are not pursuing happiness, supposedly up ahead somewhere, it is pursuing us.

The best we can do is turn back and look at it like Orpheus or Lot’s wife, because there’s no going back.

Dead people? They say the same thing. Or would if they could.