A wonderful way to remember someone after they have died is to write a poem about them. Such a poem of remembrance is called an elegy.
The Poetry Dictionary defines elegy: “A poem for someone who has died; also called a lament and threnody. Elegies are love poems for the dead, tributes and offerings to loss” – John Drury, The Poetry Dictionary, p. 88.
The interesting thing about elegies is that though they’re written about someone, their subject will never read them. So we write them for ourselves and others left behind.
There aren’t any rules for writing elegies. “They come in all forms—rhymed, free verse, even prose paragraphs whose sole purpose is to soothe rather than impress” – Michael Bugeja, The Art and Craft of Poetry, p. 134.
Four things to ask yourself when writing an elegy:
1. What is at stake for me in this poem?
If the person is someone who was close to you, that is reason enough to write. But if your elegy is about, say, a public figure you know only distantly, or a tragic death you’ve heard about through the media, you need to figure out why you feel compelled to write about that person.
2. What am I trying to accomplish?
Your answer to this question will, of course, be related to your answer to 1 above. Perhaps you’re needing to reach a new equilibrium after experiencing the disorientation of death. Or maybe you’ve come to a new understanding or epiphany—about death or life. Especially if the elegy is about someone you know and love, the very act of writing may help you work through your feelings of grief. If the death seems untimely or the result of injustice, writing about it may help you vent feelings of dismay, indignation, or resignation.
3. What objects are associated with the person?
Details from the person’s life will make your elegy specific and personal. They will also help others who knew your loved one, to relate to and identify with your poem and feelings.
4. What theme am I trying to convey?
Possible themes might be admiration, relinquishment, peace, outrage, comfort, etc. Consider whether you can include some of the objects associated with the person to help convey that theme.
I could cite grand elegy examples from literature here, but I’m going to leave you with a simple one from my life. My mother-in-law died in 2006. At the time of her death she had experienced some loss of memory and ability to function and I wanted to remember and celebrate her as she was when I first knew her. I also wanted to remind myself (and anyone who read) that our parting is only temporary. And so I wrote “Mom N.” (which my husband’s family even put in the funeral bulletin). I’ve scanned it from that bulletin; it’s below.
It is just like God
to send you on ahead.
Now we can hardly wait
to walk up the geranium-lined path
to your mansion.
On the way inside
you will steer us past your garden
point out the gargantuan beefsteak tomatoes
bushes heavy with raspberries
field of cucumbers
huge heads of cabbage
perfect for sauerkraut.
Inside will be fragrant
with a banquet of koubassa
cabbage rolls and perogies
– prune, sauerkraut, potato and cheese –
turkey, vegetables, dressing
When we’ve stuffed ourselves
with all this
you’ll pass around the coffee
press us to have still more –
poppy seed cake, pineapple pudding
your famous wild cranberry tarts.
Then, after eons of catching up
and we’re loaded down with jars
of sweet pickles and carrot pudding
packets of Christmas cake
– light and dark –
you’ll kiss us goodbye
and there will be no tears
at the parting.
© 2006 – V. Nesdoly
Next time you’re grieving the loss of someone dear, try writing an elegy. Even if it’s written through tears, your poem may bring more comfort, to you and others, than you ever imagined.
Violet Nesdoly lives near Vancouver B.C. and has had poetry published in Prairie Messenger, utmostchristianwriters.com, Time of Singing, Your Daily Poem, and many anthologies. She has published two books of poems, Calendar (2004) and Family Reunion (2007), and the novel Destiny’s Hands (2012). She loves trying out new poetic forms and writes often about nature and faith. Find out more about her and her work at VioletNesdoly.com.