Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After Loss, Turning To Poetry For Grief And Healing


After the sudden death of his father, the poet Kevin Young looked for a collection of poems that might speak to his sense of loss. To his surprise, he couldn't find such a collection, so he went to work compiling one. The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, Young's anthology, came out earlier this year.

Early in the collection, Young includes a poem, "Funeral Blues" by W.H. Auden, that was read at his father's service. It begins:

It's that ability -- to express a feeling like the one that arrives quickly after the loss of a loved one -- that poems like Auden's wield.

"I think that's a real part of grief that we sometimes aren't able to talk about and I think that poetry talks about perhaps better than anything else," Young tells NPR's Renee Montange. "It's able capture a moment, a feeling, perhaps a fleeting feeling, and even make -- as that poem does -- music out of it."

In a few lines -- maybe just a few words -- some poems contain feelings that can overwhelm those who have suffered a loss. Stephen Dobyn's poem "Grief" employs a simple metaphor in its opening stanza:

Young says the best poems are "precise about a feeling. A poem can be both blunt -- it can say it straight out -- it also can say, 'Stop all the clocks,' 'Do not go gentle into that good night.' It can plead in a way that we may wish, but we are not able to. And I think that that ability -- to be direct and say it full out, but also make music out of it, make metaphor, make meaning -- is really what a poem does best."

As grief comes in many forms, so do the poems in The Art of Losing, which takes its title from the Elizabeth Bishop poem "One Art" ("The art of losing isn't hard to master ... "). Young includes poems on subjects from the unexpected -- like David Wojahn's "Written on the Due Date of a Son Never Born" -- to careful preparation, as in Hal Sirowitz's "Remember Me":

Near the end of the collection, Young begins a section on redemption with "The Trees" by Philip Larkin, which points out not only that, while they seem to be reborn each year, trees eventually will die ("their yearly trick of looking new / Is written down in rings of grain"), but also that "their greenness is a kind of grief":


That burst of hope, Young says, is "one of the feelings that these poems capture. That movement is part of the journey of grief and healing."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit