Poetry Sunday: “The Role of Elegy,” by Mary Jo Bang

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I was introduced to Mary Jo Bang’s book, Elegy, in grad school, when Martha Rhodes assigned it for one of the residency Book Workshops at Warren Wilson; we read the book and then discussed it in several class sessions. I was very moved by Elegy, with poem after poem speaking eloquently and powerfully of the loss and grief following the death of a beloved son, and I was intrigued by what was for me something new in poetry: disrupted syntax, unconventional line breaks, and a real sense of how you can both adhere to and depart from form in service of content.

As with today’s poem, the poems in Elegy do embody some elements of formality, and that is perhaps one source of my attraction to them. Today’s poem is unrhymed and unmetered free verse, but as noted before in this column, free verse is itself a form. Stanza organization is formal, with all but the last stanza grouped into four lines (quatrains) that conclude with a three-line tercet. Bang uses initial caps for each line, a device historically associated with formal verse even though some very unconventional poets like Merwin also have used initial caps. The line breaks, discussed in more detail below, disrupt the syntax in very nontraditional ways, but the poem resolves into eight full sentences and seven sentence fragments, and syntax, punctuation, and capitalization are all regular.

Let’s start by defining the elegy since Bang calls this poem (and all the others in the book) by that descriptor. This is what the American Academy of Poets says about the form:

The elegy began as an ancient Greek metrical form and is traditionally written in response to the death of a person or group. Though similar in function, the elegy is distinct from the epitaph, ode, and eulogy: the epitaph is very brief; the ode solely exalts; and the eulogy is most often written in formal prose.

The elements of a traditional elegy mirror three stages of loss. First, there is a lament, where the speaker expresses grief and sorrow, then praise and admiration of the idealized dead, and finally consolation and solace. These three stages can be seen in W. H. Auden’s classic “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” .  .  . Other well-known elegies include “Fugue of Death” by Paul Celan, written for victims of the Holocaust, and “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman, written for President Abraham Lincoln.

Many modern elegies have been written not out of a sense of personal grief, but rather a broad feeling of loss and metaphysical sadness. A famous example is the mournful series of ten poems in Duino Elegies, by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. [from “Elegy: Poetic Form,” American Academy of Poets]

As I tried and failed to read today’s poem as fitting into the traditional definition of elegy, it occurred to me that the poem is quite postmodern in its meta impulse to write not just an elegy, but a sort of elegy to all elegies. Or, at least to try to write about what constitutes an elegy or its “role” in contemporary society and in this speaker’s life. This impulse is one thing that elevates this poem beyond the realm of individual grief into a more universal expression of sorrow. In the end, what could be more powerful than Bang’s own definition? She says in her note that “an elegy is—the poem you write while staring at the devastation that follows the realization that from this moment on, whatever else happens, you will forever be destroyed.”

What really stands out for me in terms of craft here are the line breaks, so let’s take a closer look at them. In a workshop taught by Peter Campion a few years ago, I was taught to view line breaks as existing on a continuum from the very traditional and expected when lines break on pauses that anyway occur as a result of syntactic logic, punctuation, or breath, all the way to the avant-garde and unexpected when line breaks divide an article or modifier from its noun, or in the most extreme cases, even in the middle of a word. Basically, lines are either end-stopped with punctuation or else they are enjambed, meaning there is no marked pause and the eye continues more quickly to the next line in order to finish the ongoing thought, sentence, or idea.

Of this poem’s 27 lines, 15 are end-stopped with a period, comma, colon, or em-dash. The remaining 12 lines are enjambed, some more radically than others.

The first example occurs in line 1: “the role of elegy is.” That line leaves us hanging and provides the phrase that will, in an example of ring construction, end the poem. Its line break disrupts the syntax of a sentence that, but for the line break, would read as follows: “the role of elegy is to put a death mask on tragedy . . .” The disruption is underscored by the fact that the line break after “is” is syntactically unconventional, separating the sentence’s subject from its predicate. It’s also highlighted by Bang’s use of initial caps for the word (“To”) that begins the next line. The effect is to force focus on the phrase, “the role of elegy is” and compel each reader to confront for themselves what they believe the role of elegy to be.

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  • Cara October 15, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Lovely poems from lovely women
    Why did it take so long for me to find you
    Perhaps it is true
    I was hiding behind my self-built curtain

    Love your work! How do I submit a poem?

  • Dianne Alvine September 26, 2017 at 11:25 am

    This is an amazing site.