The Listener; Lyrics of loss

When Tennyson (left) published his elegiac poem 'In Memoriam', the public's reaction suggested that he had found a voice for everyone who had ever been bereaved. In this week's selection from the best of BBC Radio, three verses are discussed, and Michael Donaghy writes his own poem in response
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KATE CLANCHY: Bereavement is a time when many people reach for poetry - whether to read or write it. Today we will be considering two

poems about bereavement. The first is a classic lyric of love for a lost friend written 150 years ago. Then we'll look at a new poem about grieving for a mother and father. The classic lyric is part of In Memoriam, by Tennyson.

Tennyson wrote In Memoriam for his friend Arthur Hallam, who died shockingly young, but when the poem was first published in the mid-19th century it was staggeringly popular, selling thousands upon thousands of copies, as though Tennyson, out of his own loss, had found a voice for many other bereaved people of the Victorian age. It still speaks clearly today.

In Memoriam is a long sequence of verses that takes us through grief and the loss of religious faith to restored hope. But we've chosen one small section from the early part of the poem. The narrator can't sleep, and just before dawn he returns to the house where, in happier times, his friend would be waiting to greet him.

Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,

Doors, where my heart was used to beat So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more -

Behold me, for I cannot sleep,

And like a guilty thing I creep

At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain On the bald street breaks the blank day.

We asked the Irish-American poet Michael Donaghy to talk about In Memoriam, and then to write a poem of his own in response.

Michael Donaghy's poetry is often concerned with bereavement, with finding the right words for loss. He spoke first about the psychological accuracy of the moment Tennyson had chosen, waiting alone outside his dead friend's house.

MICHAEL DONAGHY: Here we are, in this moment of stillness, expecting a revelation - and he is addressing not his dead friend, but the closed doors of his dead friend's house. And the curious thing about addressing these inanimate objects is that so often in our own lives there is a tremendous emotional investment in an inanimate object. In In Memoriam Tennyson implores the doors of his friend's house to look at him, for these eyeless things to look at him:

Behold me, for I cannot sleep, And like a guilty thing I creep At earliest morning to the door.

KC: "Like a guilty thing" - Tennyson is not only suffering grief, but he seems to have lost a sense of himself. He feels worthless and guilty, he creeps around in the dark. Dawn is coming, and just for a moment, it seems to bring Tennyson comfort - he feels as if his dead friend is only a long way away from him. But the moment passes and the new day brings no hope.

MD: The third stanza begins with the line "He is not here; but far away". That line, for me, is the most interesting thing in the poem. Formally speaking, the most interesting thing is that little hesitation, that enjambment: "far away" on its own is comforting. "He is not here; but far away" - he is far away. But then you go to the next line, and realise that there's no full stop there: "but far away/ the noise of life begins again". Dawn arrives, which is life starting up again - but for him it's the noise of life, not of the birds, the breeze through the trees - just noise.

KC: "On the bald street breaks the blank day": the hard, harsh sound of that last line seems to emphasise Tennyson's feelings of hopelessness and desolation. Tennyson is always notorious for his luxuriating in sounds. It's a very strophic last line, using heavy accents. Noise, ghastly, bald - perhaps it's Tennyson's portrayal of the blankness of the world after bereavement that speaks so directly to so many readers. The poem happens in an unlovely street, with no beauty of nature - and, as Michael Donaghy points out, Tennyson is describing a world without meaning and without faith, as well as without his friend.

MD: In Memoriam is about not only bereavement, but about a crisis of belief, which is something that I've struggled with all my life. I've certainly encountered that kind of bereavement crisis though my life. I find that most people say that when somebody they love has died, a part of them has died as well. I believe that is very literally true, because we build ourselves against those we love. So when they die part of our very being is torn from us. So the meaning drains out of everything - especially, perhaps, in the Victorian or post-Victorian kind of bereavement, post-scientific, where we no longer have an easy relationship with belief. That's why I find that penultimate word in the poem so interesting - "blank" - the empty day, a day as yet uninscribed with meaning.

KC: So, for Michael Donaghy, this portrayal of blankness makes In Memoriam more real than consoling. But he was already looking towards writing his own poem on bereavement.

MD: I want to find the poem consoling, I hunger for solace. When I write my own poem, I want to find my own version of solace, as Tennyson found his.

KC: While we waited for Michael Donaghy's new poem, I reflected on the hard task we had set him. Not only is it difficult to find the right words to describe your feelings about a death, it can be difficult to decide what those feelings are in the first place. When I experienced the death of someone my own age for the first time, I didn't know how to write about it, because I didn't seem to be feeling very much. The death was a loss, but, in a way, I had lost plenty of friends just through life's ordinary processes - they had moved away or married someone I didn't like. Only in my dreams did I register shock and fear.

A few weeks later, Michael Donaghy finished his poem on bereavement, and explained that he had returned to a subject that haunts his poetry - the death of his father.

MD: There is a poem by a colleague of mine that begins "This is the very last poem I am going to write about my father", and I, too, have written several poems of grieving for my father; although only one, oddly enough, for my mother, I think because she died when I was still a child, so I couldn't experience the grief with feelings that I could put into words. My father died several years later, and I feel I have much more to work through with his death. So I have written several poems on the same subject and, well, perhaps this is going to be the last.

I started off hoping that I could take the template and the structure of the Tennyson poem and find my way into the emotion that way. But it didn't work, perhaps because I felt too keenly what the critic Walter Jackson Bate calls the "burden of the past" in the English poet: the perfection of the Tennyson poem, and how to match it. So I thought I would use a different strategy. I could see why you thought of me in relation to Tennyson, because I do write very formal and rhymed metrical poems. But I thought this time I would start with the emotion and work outwards to the form. Tennyson begins the poem addressing the door, a peculiar thing to do, and in my poem I also wanted to focus on inanimate objects. I think of them as focal points for the emotions.

KC: In the end, Michael Donaghy's poem was about coming to terms with his mother's death as well as his father's. In the first part, he remembers finding his father trying to talk to his dead mother through bits and pieces she used to own; then, many years later, he finds himself doing the same thing for his dead father. The title of the poem, "Not Knowing the Words", describes the difficulties in talking to the dead.

Before he wearied of the task, he sang a nightly mass for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed

and magicked his blood to bourbon and tears over the ring, the lock of hair, the dried pink dentures.

Was he talking to her? I never learned.

Walk in, he'd pretend to be humming, softly, like wind through a window frame.

The last I saw of him alive, he pressed me to his coat.

It stinks in a sack in my attic like a drowned Alsatian.

It's his silence. Am I talking to him now, as I get it out and pull its damp night down about my shoulders?

Shall I take up the task, and fill its tweedy skin?

Do I stand here not knowing the words when someone walks in?

MD: The situation in the first half of the poem is of me surprising my father while he's looking at what he thought of as memorabilia, these objects he kept in a box belonging to my mother - a lock of her hair, her dentures and the wedding ring. I walked in on him when he had these things out, and he appeared to be talking to her, and as I rounded the corner he pretended to be singing to himself, which is a more acceptable thing to do than to be talking to yourself - but there weren't any words to the song, or any melody.

KC: In some ways, then, Michael was describing something direct and simple, but there were magical and religious elements in the poem too. In the second line he borrows a phrase from the liturgy of the requiem mass. I asked Michael about the musical religious language that he describes his father using as he talked to his wife's relics.

MD: I remember that phrase - "for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed" - from my childhood. I think anyone who went to church as a child will remember hearing certain lines that were said in the same rhythm every week. You can hear that didactic rhythm, that three-syllable rhythm, and when you're a child there's a groove cut in your mind for these phrases.

KC: This religious language gives the poem some of its magic and mystery, but it goes further. The watching child imagines his father turning his blood to bourbon and tears, like a magician performing a conjuring trick. This also came from Michael Donaghy's memories of his father.

MD: He had the most peculiar beliefs - perhaps that's partly why magic comes up when I talk about my father. He did little magic tricks for us as children, and he had the most amazing range of interests. I come from a very working-class family, he worked in a factory that made printing presses, and was made redundant, and a lot of my childhood he spent unemployed and very depressed. So what he did with his time was create these little conjuring tricks.

KC: And so magic and the Catholic mass are linked together in the poem.

MD: The mass strikes me as the ultimate conjuring trick. I know it's blasphemous to say that, but it's where the priest, as a magician, turns the sacramental wine into the blood of Christ, and here in his private mass for my mother's soul he would sit alone and drink mumbling to himself and so the magic in his blood is bourbon and tears. It's a reflection of the Eucharist that he has these objects - "the ring, the lock of hair, the dried pink dentures" - rather as the priest would have before him the bell and the chalice and the book.

KC: In the second verse, the child that watched his father grieve is now an adult grieving for his father, and like his father - and like Tennyson 150 years before - Michael Donaghy turns to an animate object - his father's coat.

MD: I still own my father's coat, I've never been able to throw it away. It's moth-eaten, it's falling apart, but I'll probably own it until it's just some threads in a bin-bag. So here I am in the same position as my father. I don't actually get the coat out and talk to him, but perhaps I should as I suggest in the poem - pull its damp night down around my shoulders, and do I stand here not knowing the words to this song when someone walks in, who would probably be my son?

KC: Like Tennyson, Michael Donaghy doesn't romanticise his grief. First he talked about his mother's dry pink dentures, and now his father's coat smells like a dead dog.

MD: I suppose I just wanted to shock at that stage. But the coat does have this wet dog smell, and comparing it to a dead animal seemed right somehow.

KC: In the first stanza, the child walked in on the father; in the second stanza Michael Donaghy mentions how he would look in his grief to someone who walked in on him. I wondered who it might be walking in?

MD: It could be anyone. If I were writing a longer poem, I would turn the poem around and start addressing my son - it's a very interesting thing to do in a poem, to change from the third person to the second person. It shifts it up a register - Wordsworth does it in Tintern Abbey, for example. I think I'll leave it open - it could well be the reader walking in on the poem.

KC: One of the things that most struck me was the way that just by using a few details - the humming, the bourbon, the musty coat - Michael Donaghy has magicked up his father, so we can imagine him and grieve for him. And Michael seems to be talking to his father through the poem.

MD: I'm not going to sit down and get quietly drunk tonight and talk to my father alone, and yet writing a poem is something like that. So often we speak to the dead in poems.

I think in the poem I am realising that I am in my father's position, and that perhaps there's no other way to grieve. It's one of those poems where you look back on the way you saw your parents as a child, and your vision is transformed.

This programme in the series 'The Lyrics' will be broadcast on BBC World Service on Thursday at 2.30pm