The Art of Losing…

I’ve been keeping journals since I was about eight or nine years old. When I was younger, through my teenage years, I was fairly consistent in starting a journal, writing in it until it was full and then moving onto the next set of empty pages. However, especially as I got older and my writing became a bit more focused and I started to mine it for poems, I started to keep better track of these little books full of scribbling. I didn’t seem to have trouble hanging onto them until fairly recently.

I wouldn’t say I’m a forgetful person and I don’t think I really fall into the “scatterbrain” category either. I’m relatively organized and I don’t lose things easily, but in the last couple of years I seem to be constantly losing journals. For example, a few semesters ago I started writing in a yellow, faux leather journal that my sister gave me for Christmas. I really liked the size of the journal, the bright yellow cover and the strip of leather on the front that buckled to keep the journal closed. I wrote in it all semester and then one day, I couldn’t find it. I tore my house apart. I looked in my office and in the lost and found at school. I couldn’t find it. I was annoyed. Mostly because I liked the journal and also, who knows what was in there that I could potentially have used for a poem or two?

Today I have the day off and I’ve finally had some time to sit and think about some ideas I had for poems over the holidays. However, when I went up to my office space to look for my writing journal, I couldn’t find it. I have looked all over my house and it doesn’t seem to be here. Now it is possible it’s at work, seeing as how I often take my journal to work if I have a spare moment or two and think of something I want to write down. However, if it doesn’t turn out to be in a desk drawer at school, well, I don’t have the first clue where it might be.

This idea of losing potential ideas for poems or even drafts of poems themselves, reminds me of a story I heard once when I was an undergraduate. A visiting writer came to campus to give a reading and I’m sorry to say, I can’t remember who it was but I do remember he was a fiction writer and he primarily wrote short stories. He was in his fifties and this was probably somewhere around 2000 or 2001. He was talking about how he used to only keep one type written copy of all his drafts/stories but one days his car was broken into and they took everything in it, including the folio that contained all of his work. After this incident, he started keeping multiple copies. He also started using a computer in addition to his type writer.

Of course anyone who uses computers and has suffered through the loss of a hard drive or external hard drive, knows that technology does not completely solve this “art of losing.” In fact, I suffered this exact problem a few months ago when our external hard drive failed and all my poetry was lost. Luckily, my husband who is a determined and brilliant soul, was able to recover the data, but now we both consistently use Dropbox.

While it is frustrating to lose these journals and the material that they hold, there is also something freeing about it. Also, while I seem to become slightly forgetful in the material sense, I’m still lucky to have a good memory, so if an idea or image or line for a poem is particularly interesting to me I am often able to circle back around to it at some point.

All this being said, I’m still going to be on the look out for that journal…

Poetry About Loss

The Academy of American Poets defines the elegy as follows:

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.  

I’ve never written a formal elegy but I think it is definitely something some of my poems work towards. I began writing poetry, consistently, after the death of my aunt and her death, as a subject, followed me through the rest of my undergraduate coursework and into my graduate studies in Texas. It never occurred to me to sit down and try and write a formal elegy because the ideas for the poems just seem to keep coming and coming. I was in mourning and the writing was how I got through it. It was a long process and I still return to her sometimes, although in later poems it seems to be more of a celebration. 
Weeping Woman, Pablo Picasso 1937

I know that many poets use words to work through loss and difficult times. Confessionalism, which I discovered through the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, emerged from the idea of writing as a coping mechanism. Of course the poems of Plath and Sexton are more than just therapy, but I guess I never really realized how much I used my poetry to process loss until fairly recently. I’ve written about the loss of family, animals, and even bigger losses like Costa Concordia. 

In fact, one of my favorite poems by my favorite poet, Elizabeth Bishop, is about loss. I use this poem as an example of revision in my creative writing class. The poem, “One Art”, shows a tremendous change from the first draft to the final draft, and our textbook, Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway, includes both drafts, so students can see the journey the poem took. Admittedly, this poem is a villanelle and not necessarily in the traditional form of an elegy, but the list that Bishop crafts in her poem definitely lament and grieve but she does not find solace at the end:

—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. 

This particular class enjoyed the poem quite a bit and we had a good discussion about the revision process the poem went through. More about this poem and the revisions it went through can be found in Ellen Bryant Voigt’s excellent book of essays entitled The Flexible Lyric. 

Writing about loss can be problematic in the way that all subjects that a poet returns to over and over again can be problematic. I definitely felt like I was in a rut for a certain period of time, but I also feel like I had to write those poems (successful and unsuccessful) just to work them out of my system. I remember being so relieved after reading some poetry by Anna Akhmatova in a graduate class and being inspired to write my poem “Vigil.” It was felt like the beginning of a departure into something new, and at that point, I was ready.