The Sorrow Psalms: new poetry anthology revives interest in elegies
Of all the poetic forms, the elegy can be the most stirring and profound. Whether written as a poetic lament for a friend (as John Milton did in 1637 with his pastoral elegy "Lycidas") or as a lament for all the dead (as in Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead"), a well-done elegy reaches beyond death as an abstract concept and embraces it as the very essence of what every human experiences at the end of their life.
Unfortunately, in recent decades elegies have fallen out of favor with both poets and the reading public. Perhaps this is a result of our ever-extending life spans and a youth-obsessed culture which promises that we can forstall the inevitable for another day—and if we can't do that, we can at least ignore it. This view has never set well with me. By sanitizing death and locking it away in a rarely seen closet, we are unprepared for the end when it finally comes to ourselves and those we love. This doesn't mean one should embrace death; it means that one embraces life even more when one realizes death waits for us even on the most beautiful and sunny of days.
Perhaps my feelings on death have caused me to embrace The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth-Century Elegy, edited by Lynn Strongin and published by the University of Iowa Press. A gifted stylist, Strongin's poetry and nonfiction have graced storySouth several times. With this anthology, though, Strongin has transcended everything she has accomplished as a writer. In one fell swoop she has provided proof that the elegy is not dead but instead thrives, blossoming forth from a new generation of poets.
The anthology opens with W. B. Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and continues through such well-know elegies as Tate's previously mentioned poem to lesser known poems like Billy Collins' masterful "The Dead." Perhaps because of the solemn, death-obsessed nature of Southern Literature, Southern writers are well represented in this anthology, with James Dickey (and his wonderful poem "Buckdancer's Choice"), R.T. Smith, G.C. Waldrep, Allen Tate, and Carolyn Maisel being just a few of the names here.
As someone who reads very few poetry anthologies each year, this is one I have found myself turning to time and again over the last two months. The poems here reassure and calm, teach and enlighten, and most of all connect us even more to life by going through the valley of death. I can not recommend this anthology enough.