“The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing” is a collection of 150 poems on the heartbreaking, confusing, universal and inevitable experience of mourning, compiled by American poet and Emory University professor Kevin Young. It is a rarity in the world of poetry anthologies, where there’s a noticeable dearth of collections that focus on loss and death — strange because there’s certainly no dearth of poems that address these subjects.
In the introduction to the anthology, Kevin Young writes that “the best poems, it seems to me, evince their origins in the need to speak, or to write; to render a complex fate simply.” These are the poems that fall under the umbrella of what Young calls a “poetry of necessity.” That is, the poetry that matters and is propelled, created and sought out of need.
In times of grief and mourning, that need is to distill, reconcile and wrestle with the overwhelming reality of loss. That’s a tall order for words, but when a line of poetry succeeds — when it is crafted in such a way that it says exactly what you need it to say — it has the power to become a buoy, a mirror and a guidepost.
“The Art of Losing” focuses mostly on recent poems written in the 20th century and after, with the inclusion of one or two 19th century poems that Young deemed “necessary.” Young clusters the poems into five sections, each correlating to a facet of the grieving process: Reckoning, Remembrance, Rituals, Recovery and Redemption. Included in the “Recovery” section is Galway Kinnel’s poem “Wait.” One of my favorites in the anthology, it begins,
“Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become interesting.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again;
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands.”
Deep grief can render the world terrifying and disorienting. It can also render it flat and dull. During episodes of profound grief and mourning, when fear or sadness or apathy flood everything else out, you completely miss out on things like “hair being interesting.” To believe that if you just wait, simple things will one day hold your interest again — that you will once again become truly engaged by such things as haircuts or breakfast or potholes or flowers blooming — is an incredibly comforting thought.
“The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing” is gem of a poetry anthology compiled by a sensitive editor who has made his own way through the labyrinth of grief. (In his introduction to the anthology, Young writes about mourning his father.) Young has gifted us with a collection of poems we can use like a ball of string tied to the doorpost of healing as we make our way through the labyrinth ourselves.