by Wendy Cope

She was Eliza for a few weeks
When she was a baby—
Eliza Lily. Soon it changed to Lil.

Later she was Ms. Steward in the baker’s shop
And then ‘my love’, ‘my darling’, Mother.

Widowed at thirty, she went back to work
As Mrs. Hand. Her daughter grew up,
Married and gave birth.

Now she was Nanna. ‘Everybody
Calls me Nanna,’ she would say to visitors.
And so they did— friends, tradesmen, the doctor.

In the geriatric ward
They used the patients’ Christian names.
‘Lil,’ we said, ‘or Nanna.’
But it wasn’t in her file
And for those last bewildered weeks
She was Eliza once again.

One Art 

by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

“Names” from Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope (© Wendy Cope, 1992) is printed by permission of United Agents on behalf of Wendy Cope. 

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Poetry is rarely thought of as inviting. Only about 12 percent of adults read or listened to poetry last year, according to a study from the National Endowment for the Arts. For most people, there are art forms that more readily come to mind. The film industry, for example, doesn’t often ask much of its audience, except a theater ticket or a monthly subscription fee, to be enjoyed at leisure. Novels continue to delight, shock, and surprise adoring readers, for sometimes as little as $10. Pop music gives us what our itching ears long to hear. Visual art fills museums, where millions of appreciators peruse, at their own pace, maybe with an expert guide. But poetry, as an art form, is considered by many to be elitist or unnecessarily weird. As my mom often says, “I just don’t get it.” 

Fair enough. We’ve all read lines of verse that left us wondering which drug the author was tripping on. Or perhaps when you try to read a poem (let’s say at a flea market, where casually thumbing through a book of verse is just about the coolest thing you can do), you come across lines like this: 

A mere stick that has
    twenty leaves
against my convolutions
What shall it become,
Snot nose, that I have
    not been?
I enclose it and
    persist, go on. 


Not exactly a welcoming few lines to encounter (no offense, William Carlos Williams) if a newcomer (I don’t get it either, Mom). 

I was introduced to poetry in my 30s, on a strange and wonderful wilderness course off the west coast of Canada (Regent College’s famed boat course, for inquiring minds). I found myself rowing in the open ocean, having just seen orcas in the wild, with 11 other wilderness-loving amateur theologians, under the tutelage of Loren and Mary Ruth Wilkinson and Iwan Russell-Jones, among others, and I suddenly heard behind me a minutes-long recitation of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Where was I? I felt we had rowed right into Rivendell; that’s how magical it was. 

I admit this is not the usual way to encounter poetry. But several of the professors had memorized poems of length and wove them into the conversations and curriculum. It was astonishing. This was where I really discovered poetry, and — to my surprise — I found it to be a hospitable space. 

Now, I’ve spent nearly a decade inside hundreds of poems, first as a reader and eventually as a poet myself. It wasn’t a fluke out there in the Pacific Ocean, rowing in time with my classmates. One of the greatest things I’ve learned in the discipline is simply this: A poem can indeed be a hospitable place — a place where room has been made for you, where you feel welcome, and where you might receive all kinds of good gifts. 

Poetry is especially hospitable to us in grief. Mark Doty considered this in his essay “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?” noting that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, New Yorkers sought out poems: “The staff at Barnes & Noble in Union Square told me that the store was entirely empty in the days immediately following the fall of the towers, save for the poetry section.” Humans have long put pain to rhyme and meter. The poetic arts are particularly suited to making room for the harrowing realities of life on earth. Look no further than the Psalms, or elegies ancient and modern, even today’s breakup songs. Why do we find solace in a poem in dark times? 

I have three ideas. The first is so simple, you can easily miss it. 

Poems hold a great deal of white space, or blank space. If you print out a poem and hold it up before you, or find a page of poetry and pull it a little ways from your face, and blur your eyes, you’ll see how much is left unsaid. Huge sections of the page are left empty. This is intrinsic to the craft, this holding absence. 

Poems are distilled word-craft, so the poet must continually struggle with what to delete or leave out. Poems are dense. As I’ve written elsewhere, the poet’s job is to attend to word and white space. This is a visual and (I’ll risk saying) visceral relief to readers who are experiencing loss, or living through the aftermath of a tragedy. They, too, are holding absence every day. A chunk of prose that fills the whole page, line after weary line, might be overwhelming for someone in grief. But just a little text, carefully crafted, read in a few breaths, can be a resting place. Of course the words themselves matter, but I’m trying to bring attention to our experience of a poem on the page. 

A fine example of this is Wendy Cope’s “Names.” In it, she tells the story of a woman’s life, from birth to death, in 107 words. It is sparse, so brilliantly crafted — so gentle and then gut-wrenching. You want to cry by the end (especially if you are close to anyone with dementia), but you also sigh something of relief. She seems to recognize what cannot be said, and leaves room for it on the page. What a gift to us in our grief.

The second gift we can receive from poetry in times of turmoil or loss is the form of (some) poems. 

If you’re aware of what’s being currently written in the world of poetry, because of Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” recited at President Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration, or if you happened upon Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” (the first poem to attain “viral” status, I believe), then you might be familiar with free-verse poetry — that is, poems that have no distinct rhyme pattern or strict cadence determined by the syllables on each line. 

Free verse seems to be ruling in our day (though for an astute and no doubt humorous defense of the “return of the form,” look to Malcolm Guite, sonnet-writer-extraordinaire). For most of the history of the English language, poetry was a corseted endeavor, and poets submitted to the “scanty plot of ground” (Wordsworth) of the given form in which they toiled. Perhaps you recall words like sestina, volta, iambic pentameter, or trochee — from middle school or from a college lit class — all related to poetic forms. Though it might not be currently in vogue, I’m convinced that the form of a poem is especially hospitable to us in grief. 

Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is an amazing example of such hospitality. Bishop squeezes her own lifetime of losses into the villanelle form — a strict form that would take a whole paragraph to describe. Here’s the short: A villanelle is a 19-line poem (usually written in iambic pentameter) with two rhymes repeated in an alternating pattern, consisting of five tercets and a quatrain. Lord have mercy. It’s complex. 

Villanelle writing is a work of extreme patience and self-control. Bishop chooses this form to write about loss. And I find that fascinating. I find it to be a poetic “this far and no farther” statement to one’s grief. Like God’s own description to Job of the boundaries he set for the sea when he made it (Job 38:11), strict poetic forms offer us a craft in which we might say, to our grief, “you get this space on the page, this space inside the form I’ve chosen, but you don’t get to take over my whole life.” There is great comfort in seeing loss bound.

There is also great comfort in participating in that bounding of loss, for yourself. If you find that you have the desire to make something out of the brokenness in your own experience, I’d say you’re collaborating with God in his redemptive work. Following his lead, even if you find yourself in an ocean of stormy circumstance and emotion, rather than drown, you cry with artistry, “This far and no farther.”

I wouldn’t want to jump to give this advice to someone experiencing loss, but it is true that in Christ, we don’t grieve as those without hope, and I believe this means we will eventually want to do something with our pain and suffering. We will want to follow God’s way of artistry, using the crap materials (as he does) of life as we know it.

lake garfield

by Anna A. Friedrich

compare and compete, compare and compete
I can hear them bicker from the shore
my boys are out fishing
in a borrowed canoe
while the sun seems
to fill the lake till it breaks
out in ripples their
chests and arms gleam
as they cast, reel in, re-cast
we’ve caught nearly thirty fish they holler
together, I wave, they shout back
all catch and release—
catch and release the younger repeats
as if it’s a song
the line in his hand flung, flies
laughter rolls in to the dock
echoes back catch
and release

For the third and final example, I hope this poem of mine, “lake garfield,” makes room for readers to imagine putting some of their own pain to poetry. I took a simple phrase, often repeated by my son who loves to fish, and worked with it to hold something of the grief I feel about my boys growing up. This is good work, image-of-God work, to shape something new out of sorrow. 

Poets take the language they possess and form it, word by word, into a new creation. They often take the harder things of life — the sudden shocks or the slowly unfolding heartaches— and form those into a small space on a page, a space where you are invited to breathe into the white space, expressing and yet containing pain with the help of their words carefully chosen, and then perhaps imagining a new song rising inside yourself, the reader. 

There remains a generous welcome inside many poems. May these three — “Names,” “One Art,” and “lake garfield” — open new doors (for even you, Mom).