Death As A Theme In Modern Poetry Death has been and always will be an interesting and compelling topic among poets and authors alike. Death sheds a mysterious vale over life and is often avoided or dreaded within people causing diversity among the reactions of modern poetry and thought. Mortality can be treated as a crisis, a destination, with significance or without, as well as (sadly) by some as a goal. Death provides a wide spectrum of ideas that can be expanded upon with dignity or as a magnanimous ideal. The poets that I have read and pondered deliver an array of insight on the topic; from its grotesqueness to its humbleness. They approach or meditate upon death with disgust as well as with nonchalance.
Overall I think that although the poets each dissect and interpret our inevitable encounter in variation they all would agree in its mystery and finality. To live, especially with comfort and respect, can often be, and is usually, a difficult as well as unavoidable task. Dying can be viewed in much the same way. Although you sometimes have a choice, often death is sudden and miserable and can end a life with little or no grace. I think Randall Jarrell would agree with me on this point. In his poem The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner Jarrell explicates upon a situation that although is sometimes forced at a person, is often (especially within his time-period) viewed with high regard in the population.
What would be a better way to die than defending one’s nation and doing your part in freeing millions of oppressed people? But this brave act by a man who is terrified ends in what I would see as humiliation. His parents or friends would not view his death as disgraceful or anything but the way in which his remains were desecrated would have surely been disgusting. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose. The idea of somebody washing the flesh and guts of a recently deceased person portrays how pathetic the finality of one’s live can be. This frightened man who fell into the State straight from his mother’s sleep was possibly given a hero’s burial but at the same time his carcass remains were hosed out of the turret.
This is an almost obscene gesture. Isaac Rosenburg analyzes a death in war in much the same way. In his poem Dead Man’s Dump he remarks, A man’s brains splattered on A stretcher-bearers face; this hideous observation points out to us how un-heroic death on a battlefield actually is. Death as thought about by Jarrell and Rosenberg is not beautiful but messy and possibly even an event of degradation. Is death a fate that is left up to us? Or do we die as the direct result of action, or possibly inaction of others? This is a question that will probably always be argued and probably never be answered; the conclusion will at least not be ascertained by us mere mortals.
In the poem Not Waving But Drowning this issue is touched upon either directly on indirectly by Stevie Smith and is possibly more of a backdrop than a theme. The man who dies in the poem (which is I would also call a story) does have control over his fate in this situation. Perhaps if he were a better swimmer or would not have eaten so much before he went out he would not have been in this predicament, but that is beside the point. I was much further out than you thought, she says (and to make my point I am taking all of this in the literal and not figurative form) with a sort of shame. This suggests that the speaker of this narrative had some control over this man’s death but was either to careless or not observant enough to save his life.
This man’s fate therefor was not completely in his own hands, although it was not necessarily in total control of the narrator either. This to me basically implies that although fate does rest in our hands to some extent, it also lies (at least aspects of it) in the hands of others. Another poet backs up this notion in an indirect and possibly even unintentional (but probably intended) manner. In the poem The Hand That Signed the Paper Dylan Thomas discusses the power one tiny hand can have over millions of things and people. The hand that signed the paper felled a city: is stated first off in the poem.
A person in this poem’s world would have little control over their destiny. The people of this city could have fled before it was demolished but they could have also stayed and died, or possibly even perished in the action of escaping. Any death related to the destruction of this city would show how a person’s death is not up to himself or herself but that it is decided by fate. (Both their own personal fates as well as the fate and decisions of others, for example: the actual being who signed the paper, or the person who did not act to prevent the signing.) These situations do not only explicate upon fate, they also show us how easy and suddenly one can die. On a normal afternoon a man drowns.
Or that same man could have been sitting in a chair listening to the radio when an officer signs a contract to bomb a specific city and his house is diminished to a smoldering pile of ashen brick. This leads to my next topic. If we know we are going to die, how should we live? Or what should we do when considering death? This was brought up in the words and ideas of several of the poets we read. Each gave their own interesting twist to what they thought life was when compared or shown in accordance with death and dying. I have already shown that certain poets believe that death is an easy thing to come by, so now how would that relate to our lives? Theodore Roethke discusses this in his poem The Waking. The phrase, I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow is repeated several times throughout the poem.
This can imply several things. To wake is probably synonymous with to live and to sleep is probably related to to die. If you take your waking slow I would think you would live longer. If you took your waking fast (or lived a fast life) I would think that he meant it would lead to a faster or earlier death. Does this mean live life to the fullest? Probably, but not with the same connotation as is common in contemporary America. I think it is saying to live without consideration of death.
But that’s where it gets complicated. Roethke is not saying to live recklessly, or over indulge, or to engage in gluttonous lifestyle, he is saying to live conservatively but not to let death consume your anxieties. Death is a common and natural occurrence that is unavoidable so live without consideration of it. Dylan Thomas echoes these sentiments to a certain extent, although in a voice that does not share the same passivity as Roethke. You should never let yourself succumb to death according to Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.
In this poem he states Rage, rage against the dying of the light. This acknowledges the existence of a life’s end but tells us not to shrivel or wither in its sometimes-frightening face. Wise men in his poem know dark is right (which I am hoping means that they know death is right and death will come) but even they do not go gentle into that good night. In this poem Thomas realizes that death is imminent but he still does not appease it by sacrificing the routines of his life to try and completely avoid dying. He is merely saying that just because it happens, and will happen, does not mean that we have to sit back and watch it occur, like his father apparently did.
Roethke’s and Thomas’s views, although different, were also similar in some ways. We are poor passing facts according to Robert Lowell. This is one more way in which death is looked at. Although his poem Epilogue is not thematically aimed towards death, this one statement is cohesive with Marianne Moore’s A Grave. People die everyday.
Deaths are ignored everyday. In a sense we are all just passing facts. Even if relatively few people notice that we die, it will be recorded somewhere and probably ready sometime again in the future. A Grave speaks candidly about how the sea is a grave that is often defiled without realization. The fish no longer investigate them for their bones have not lasted is an expression of this.
That spot is on the ocean floor where I died and that spot is also where a shark swam this morning oblivious to my grave. This is sad, but not always. My death should not ruin somebody’s or everybody else’s life. Death results in some grieving but for the most part, most of the population carries on with their everyday lives. As dark of a topic as it is, death is still interesting and can provide mysterious as well as engaging themes in poetry. These poems and topics were all related in at least a minor way and provide important views on what death is and how it is, can be, or should be reacted to.