The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing

Image of The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing
Release Date: 
March 15, 2010
Bloomsbury USA
Reviewed by: 

Even those who rarely read poetry in the course of an average day will usually be willing to ponder some sad, poignant, or inspirational elegiac verse upon the occasion of a loved one’s death.

The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing by editor and National Book Award finalist Kevin Young is reminiscent of those myriad nineteenth century anthologies of collected verse that were organized by topic. Young’s 336-page book is likewise divided into sections titled Reckoning, Regret, Remembrance, Ritual, Recovery, and Redemption.

The buttoned-down, funeral home civility of these headings also seems a little antiquated, as if their tidiness can somehow sanitize the grieving process. (What? No sections on “Drowning Your Grief in Alcohol” or “Wanting to Die So You Can Be Reunited with Your Beloved”?) Similarly, the dust jacket artwork is tastefully bland, like something a great-grandmother might put on her bedside table.

The Art of Losing clearly aims for the big readership in the middle—those who are trying to buy a tasteful gift to console a bereaved friend, those who want to find a suitable verse for a funeral service, and those who are more comfortable with the ambling, informal forms of contemporary poetry than the more formal, rhyming verse of the poets of antiquity, which sometimes sounds tinny or grandiose to the modern ear.

But wait. Some of the poems are actually full of blood and passion. “Grief,” by C. K. Williams, could hardly be read at your typical funeral service. Not only is it too long, but its grotesque images of slow death by illness (“bare skull with its babylike growth of new hair thrown back to open the terrified larynx”) would make even the most unsentimental funeral goers cringe in horror—but it could make for a cathartic read in private.

Young’s choice of poetry is remarkably well populated with 150 entries by more than 100 poets—mainly contemporary, twentieth century poets, although Emily Dickinson is summoned from the grave for two of her poems, and Robert Frost has a foot in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Lesser-known poets such as Young himself are included alongside more familiar names such as Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, D. H. Lawrence, e.e. cummings, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, Sharon Olds . . . a very long list indeed.

Many readers might be a little surprised at first to see that Young has excluded poets from eras prior to the twentieth century. How can he leave out Donne’s “Divine Sonnet X” (Death Be Not Proud), Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Gardener LXI: Peace, My Heart,” or even Poe’s “To One in Paradise”?

The answer, of course, is that Young decided to choose poetry with the most contemporary-sounding voices for contemporary readers—that aforementioned readership in the middle—so to be fair we have to take it for what it is. And there is nothing slight or superficial in his choices of poetry. Although Young could be suspected of a little literary chauvinism by not including more entries from non-Western cultures (Tagore, for one), there are vast riches in this book even for those who are not yet grieving a loss.