Harvesting Grief

The ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the occasion of a memorial service for the poet Sir Geoffrey  Hill, says this about pain and grief:

sitting with our ‘imprecise’ grief, the loss we can’t turn into anything finished and impressive, we listen to Geoffrey’s words, in one context after another, burrowing, shouldering, worrying their way towards some redirection of pain.

One thought here is that poetry is a way to deal with grief, a grief that by its nature is imprecise because its object is so often fluid or elusive. Is it the body – exactly – that was his brother John’s, that Thoreau grieves at the start of his writing career? Was it John Thoreau’s soul . . . and what would it be to grieve another’s soul?

Does Thoreau grieve their relationship, their now-lost companionship? Does he grieve the cruelty of taking a brother and at so young an age, and in such trivial circumstance (a slice from a contaminated razor)? Does he grieve the loss of a future with John, the loss of future trips and brotherly adventures?

Does he grieve his laugh, or kindness? Does he grieve, more abstractly, but still poignantly, the cruel ways of nature generally — its refusal of unlimited life?

Poetry might deal with any of these ways to make grief less imprecise.  But the fact remains that inundations of grief just are imprecise in their origins. And words work to narrow its imprecision, Williams says.

The work of narrowing imprecision is hard work: a “burrowing, shouldering, worrying” with words, as Williams has it. All in the interest of redirecting pain.

The implication seems to be that the “burrowing, shouldering, worrying” that is the working out of a line of poetry responsive to grief doesn’t erase or bury pain. It redirects it — presumably in directions that are not self-destructive, or idle wailing, simply diversionary, or sustained melancholy. The pain remains but takes different paths, some that will evince honesty and courage.

One encouraging path taken, Rowan Williams suggests, is the path leading to memorials to the dead, memorials to whatever we imprecisely grieve, laid out in some detail. This gives precision to the pain while preserving it, transformed.

If we stay with the case of Thoreau’s bereavement, the question can be to what extent much of Henry David’s early — or even later — writing was in fact a memorial to the dead. If it is a successful memorial to the suddenly dead John Thoreau, then, in a sense, John’s death is not in vain. Or so one might argue.

–Rowan Williams, memorial sermon, PN Review, Vol.43, No. 2, Nov – Dec 2016.

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