Heroism, Self-Love and the Elegy
In his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker draws on the solemnized firm of Freud, Rank, and Jung, to tell us that the artist/poet makes art as “testimonial to his absolute uniqueness and heroic transcendence.”1 I think we might infer that this “testimonial” is especially true of elegies. In other words, by writing well, especially about those who have died, we are expressing grief at the very moment that we are trying to prove our own immortality. As an occasional elegist myself, this buried intent places me in an unusually ironic, even troubling position: Despite—or perhaps because of—its sad, threnodic tone, the elegy may actually give me or any other elegist a delusional whiff of inner heroism.
The term “threnody” comes from the Greek, meaning “song of lament.” The elegy’s sad, song-like tone may be the sonic correlative to our feelings of immortality, no matter how illogical that feeling is. Given Becker’s idea, we can infer that the emotion we typically associate with resignation is actually one of lonely invincibility. In The Duino Elegies, when Rilke advocates that we separate from the loved Other in order to feel the timbre of our own loneliness, he is ostensibly telling us that this separation is a way to experience our truest “identity.” But absenting ourselves from the lover may actually be a way to deceive ourselves into sensing a custom-made immortality. Rilke was giving himself special status—that of immortality. As writer-heroes, elegists are persuading themselves that they are incapable of dying, and this sensation is one of the reasons that the elegy is powerfully alluring for writers—and so filled with potential problems. The form can be an elixir that asks us to write in a storm of transcendent grief. It goes without saying that such emotion must be controlled in the service of aesthetics. Who can be sure, but I suspect the intensity of this sensation helps to suggest why good elegies are more often written by mature poets, not by emerging poets. Like a drug, that sadness is empowering and may militate against aesthetic control. It’s no surprise that the word for the drug “heroin” is etymologically based on the word “hero”; heroin can certainly lead to feelings of euphoric invincibility. In a way, young poets can have trouble with the elegy because they can get hooked not on a drug but on the threnodic buzz of heroism.
Like all good poems, our elegies should work within and against the tradition. We used to see the form as an expression of mourning for a deceased person, while finding some kind of comforting principal to offer up, usually as modeled by that person when he or she was alive. I would like to say that when I wrote my poem “Our Children Playing Catch in the Evening of No Warning,” I was trying to break from the restrictions of the old form. But the truth is, as with most of my poems, I was just writing to see what happens next. In fact, when discussing how we write, I think more often than not we’re talking about how we revise. During good early stage writing, the poet is rarely conscious of a project per se. The revision process is another thing entirely. When this poem started, it was about my four year old son and his nine-month-old sister playing ball with one another; I’d formed it more as a narrative in triplets than as the irregular, lyric form it finally fell into. After I worked on a lackluster version for a year or so, I put it away, thinking that it was useless. Dead. Indeed, a thing to be mourned. Then, six or seven years later, I ran across a copy of it in one of my bedraggled folders, and, upon reading the old draft, suddenly I felt as if I had an angle into a new, animating direction:
OUR CHILDREN PLAYING CATCH IN THE EVENING
OF NO WARNING
A nearness in the twilight, the lovely arc.
Cut grass not yet the scent of elegy.
Then the elegy. Then the years . . .
Now my four year old plying a small ball
across the floor at his nine months sister,
how she first learns to palm it back to him,
my wife listening behind her book, the dusk
rolling over the houses. As my daughter
leans for the next return I unfurl
the fingers of my right hand
to catch a ball my father tosses
a year before his death.
That old fact so dim today.
Such a thing to learn . . .
Not deliverance, nor elegy, always the white ball
in its sure circuit, the easy backward draw
of the glovehand. In the sky above my children
I am playing ball, the warm crutches
leaning like a song in the dugout
as I limp for the batter’s box.
In the sky above my children, I limp
for the batter’s box and watch a soft line drive
float safely above a glove.
And so the forgetting floats
on the small charities of applause,
the pinchrunner’s comic awe . . .
My daughter, my son elaborate in his coaching . . .
We can’t hold all the facts for long.
I’m still surprised how we stopped playing that one night
when my father went inside astonished, hurt
—the ball I’d thrown—
the crisp delayed ache when it drilled his forearm,
his whispering how it actually hit him,
that this was not meant-to-be.
There are no signs. That’s the problem.
As we stop to listen to the last few seconds of dusk
submerge beneath the evening of no warning,
it may strike us again, the breath
actually stricken from our lungs.
Then the nearness in the twilight.
Then the little ones in their time.
So, on revising, I played within the old rules by mourning the death of my father and by employing repetition to emphasize the funereal song-like atmosphere of the poem. Even the oft-used baseball motif falls within a kind of American elegiac tradition in which baseball marks the passing of time. I ultimately became conscious of playing against tradition by reversing the typical regenerative roll of a key motif, by providing no consoling principal, and ultimately by mourning those who will almost certainly die after I have, my own children.
I knew early on that I risked diminishing the poem by retaining the baseball motif. As I tell my students, it’s hard to write about baseball, religion and politics, primarily because the default language of these subjects is on a hair-trigger, ready to switch instantly into cliché. But my lifelong love of playing baseball was not only intimately connected to my father, who died at 44 when I was 14, but was grounded in two key writing catalysts: dusk and the scent of cut grass. Many of us played little league games at dusk, and some of us may remember that potent smell of newly mowed ball field lawn. In the poem, the fading light and the aroma of cut grass formed an aperture into my creative sensibilities. But as literary baseball fans know, cut grass is one of the worst clichés. Every spring training, newspaper hacks talk about the fresh scent of cut grass as a sign of regeneration. And so, I had a chance to work against expectations. By the third line of the poem, the scent is associated with elegy. The narrator recognizes that the old potent scent of new beginnings is a tool for duping. Here, repetition means degeneration. We all die; we can’t protect ourselves.
As I look back on my writing the poem, I realize that, not only did I reject the idea of an overtly consoling principal, but I actually made direct statements to the contrary: First, a memory of my father is “dim.” Then, we are caught in a life of “forgetting.” Soon enough, “we can’t hold all the facts for long.” And finally, there are no signs to trigger memory nor warn us of impending death. These assertions are not resolved happily. The narrator’s memory of his (my) father does not improve by effort of recollection. “Forgetting” is a constant fact of adult life. Even the key details of key moments fade. And, despite the popular sentimental belief in signs that foretell tragedy, most mortal tragedies are marked by instantaneity rather than some cosmic tip-off.
Finally, the most important reversal: the narrator’s approach to his own beloved children. While we as parents are often obsessive about protecting our children from harm, the very act of bringing them into life guarantees the central fact of human existence: certain demise. And so the poem laments the death of the narrator’s two children, even though he recognizes that they will probably die long after he will. As I say, after my reading Becker, such a conceit naturally leaves me troubled, because Becker’s paradigm would suggest that I’m acknowledging the death of my own children in order guarantee my own immortality. The only way I have to respond to this at the moment is to say that our love for those closest to us and our drive for immortality are locked in a complex dance that only ends when we do.
In her essay “Risky Resemblances: On Repetition, Mourning, and Representation,”2 Freudian critic Elisabeth Bronfen reminds us that when we seek out love we are replacing one love object with another—and she demonstrates this pattern by examining Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock. When I finished my poem I believed then—and still believe now—that it was an expression of my love for my father, my wife, and most of all my children. But perhaps something else is also at work. If we consider Becker’s proposition that all art (and, again, I’d especially add elegiac poetry) is an attempt at heroic transcendence, than I’m left with the odd possibility that my poem is also an expression of love for myself. If Becker is correct and we cannot ultimately remove ourselves from the constant death-denying reflex, at some level all our poetry, even that which may overtly acknowledge our own deaths or that which may be overtly self-loathing, must be a kind of homage to the self. In the elegy, such self-love is Rilkean; the poem must be soaked with codified, turbulent, and emotional reference to the self. It must find a fresh way to press right to the edge of sentiment without pushing across the border into sentimentality.
The Denial of Death
, Ernest Becker, Free Press American / Simon & Schuster, New York, 1973, p. 172.
“Risky Resemblances: On Repetition, Mourning, and Representation” in Death and Representation, edited by Elisabeth Bronfen and Sarah Webster Goodwin. John Hopkins University Press, 1993, p. 103.