Give me poetry about death. Please. Thanks.
December 31, 2019 8:23 PM   Subscribe

I'm not a cultured person, and as such, have not encountered or made any real efforts to encounter much poetry. I would like to remedy this and try to find some that speak to me. I am particularly interested in poems about death, pain, suffering, mortality, or cruelty, and that are possibly introspective, because that's the sort of person I am. Bonus if the poet is female. English or Spanish is fine. I have access to a good library and can also buy books. Culture me, metafilter.
posted by succus entericus to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

"When death comes", "“In Blackwater Woods” and others by Mary Oliver

"Growing Wings" by Robert Bly

Wislawa Szymborska in general.

Sorry not to have linked them, but I trust a Google search will throw them up for you.
posted by miaow at 8:37 PM on December 31, 2019

Stéphane Mallarmé, A Tomb for Anatole - "a vision / endlessly purified / by my tears."
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:11 PM on December 31, 2019

Jane Kenyon's poem, Otherwise. She expected to outlive her older partner, Donald Hall; he outlived her and wrote a book of poems mourning her death, Without. Hall wrote an essay about the poetry of death for the New Yorker. You will find several other poets and poems cited there.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 9:22 PM on December 31, 2019 [4 favorites]

Wilfred Owen was a British soldier killed in the last week of the First World War, aged 25. He was developing into a remarkable poet. This unfinished fragment was found in his papers:

I saw his round mouth's crimson deepen as it fell,
Like a Sun, in his last deep hour;
Watched the magnificent recession of farewell,
Clouding, half gleam, half glower,
And a last splendour burn the heavens of his cheek.
And in his eyes
The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak,
In different skies.

If you like that, there's more. As you may guess, a lot of it is about death, and poison gas, and the futility of war.
posted by seasparrow at 9:24 PM on December 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Death Is Before Me Today is a few verses extracted from a larger poem called The Man Who was Tired Of Life, which in turn is a subset of Dialogue Of A Misanthrope With His Soul.

If you've ever heard the phrase "timeless poetry", this is something that has been current for 4000 years.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:31 PM on December 31, 2019 [4 favorites]

Paul Celan, Todesfuge — much of his work is about the Holocaust.
posted by aw jeez at 9:32 PM on December 31, 2019

MeFi's own Brenna Twohy has a number of poems about her brother's life and death. Forgive Me My Salt and Zig Zag girl each contain several.

Conversations About Top Chef
posted by Gorgik at 9:33 PM on December 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

In Memoriam AHH, by Tennyson, is a long cycle about mourning the death of a friend; it's a set of poems that he wrote over the course of more than a decade after his death.

I am fond of Crossing the Bar, also by Tennyson, though it has a very different flavor, which is not usually my thing. It treats death very much as a part of life and a next adventure.
posted by gideonfrog at 9:33 PM on December 31, 2019

Marilyn Hacker, Nearly a Valediction
posted by aw jeez at 9:38 PM on December 31, 2019

Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
My Grave
The Little White Hearse (child death)

Christina Rossetti:
From the Antique
After Death

I believe they both have other poems on similar themes.
posted by ZeroDivides at 10:09 PM on December 31, 2019

You might appreciate the works of Dorothy Parker.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 10:22 PM on December 31, 2019

Marylin Hacker's cancer poems, esp. Against Elegies here
posted by PinkMoose at 12:46 AM on January 1, 2020

Another Wilfred Owen vote here, and specifically the poem Strange Meeting. Still raises the hairs on the back of my neck when I read it.

Anna Akhmatova's Requiem, on the suffering under Stalin's purges.

John Donne, Death Be Not Proud. Donne posed for his funeral effigy while still alive, wrapped in the winding-sheet he was to be buried in, which I add because I think reading his poems about death and knowing that gives you more depth to them (that may be just me).

Japan has a long tradition of poems written by people facing death, called Jisei. There are books collecting them in English translation.
posted by Vortisaur at 1:08 AM on January 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

So much of Auden is about death, but since many people have covered the normal stuff, how about Marvin Bell's The Dead Man poems? It is a huge project but here is an essay that kind of gets into the nitty gritty.
posted by Literaryhero at 1:21 AM on January 1, 2020

Simple, but a reminder of mortality...

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time -- Robert Herrick
posted by pdxhiker at 1:47 AM on January 1, 2020

What, has nobody mentioned Auden's Stop All The Clocks? That's the first thing I think of when I think of death-related poetry.

The second is Whitman's Oh Captain My Captain, written after Lincoln's assassination.
posted by Tamanna at 3:58 AM on January 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

For the Anniversary of My Death” by W.S. Merwin
posted by dmo at 4:33 AM on January 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

Seconding Donald Hall’s Without. I picked it up and could not put it down (even while it made me cry).
posted by sallybrown at 5:02 AM on January 1, 2020

The Vacuum by Howard Nemerov

A Woman is Taking to Death by Judy Grahn - very political and way too long to memorize but still crystaline

Time Does Not Bring Relief Sonnet II by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Remember by Christina Rosetti
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:06 AM on January 1, 2020

Just as a side note, there is no association between reading poetry and being “cultured.” You mean “literate in elite culture,” perhaps. But if you’ve listened to pop music at all in your life you have a lifetime experience with poetry too. And it isn’t worse or better than poetry in printed books or on university syllabi. All humans are culturally formed and “cultured” in the abstract sense. There is nothing superior about literary poetry.
posted by spitbull at 5:26 AM on January 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

Do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas
posted by Faff at 5:27 AM on January 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

Marie Howe has a book, What the Living Do, about her brother's death.

The Last Time
posted by kokaku at 5:37 AM on January 1, 2020

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell and once you've read that, You, Andrew Marvell by Archibald MacLeish

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell

Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens

Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath
posted by Redstart at 6:06 AM on January 1, 2020

A Prayer to go to Heaven with the Donkeys. This was recommended by a MeFite on another thread, and I fell in love with it.
posted by FencingGal at 7:42 AM on January 1, 2020

Philip Larkin’s Aubade, and an analysis.

Philip Larkin, again, with An Arundel Tomb, essentially a long meditation on the effigies of a couple, sculpted on a tomb. It ends with some of my favourite lines (note the difference in tone to Aubade, but also see this commentary):

The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways and A Slumber did my Spirit Seal by William Wordsworth. Here you can download a PhD thesis on Wordsworth and death, if you want to know more. The thesis considers ‘two basic ways of understanding mortality’: ‘the first is death as disjunction, extinction, the end; the second is death as part of a larger continuity, a threshold, a stage. … Isolation and despair were the corollaries of the first vision, while the capacity for love and hope which was essential for the life of the human spirit was nurtured and made possible by the second.’ The thesis is in three parts – death in WW’s time, including attitudes to the afterlife, death in his own personal life, and death as a theme in his poetry.

John Donne was mentioned above; though it’s not strictly about death, or rather it is about death in a complex religious context, A Hymn to God the Father is one of my favourite poems, so I’ll copy it here:

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Again, not directly about death, but I think Shelley’s Ozymandias is a good addition here; interesting to read in parallel with this ancient Egyptian poem.

BTW, compare Ozymandias to Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn – though the former is more about power than art and the latter is only obliquely about death; still, rather different sentiments – you could say Shelley smashes Keats’ urn to pieces.

Shakeaspeare’s Sonnet 18 shares Keats faith in the ability of art to transcend death; bonus Paul Kelly audio. On Shakespeare, you could say that all of Hamlet is one long dramatic poem about death. But my favourite Shakespeare lines related to death are Ariel’s song in The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.

Returning to the tone of the ancient Egyptian Song of the Harper, medieval European literature is full of the carpe diem, memento mori theme, and the ars morendi appear frequently in the writings of the time. You can search for ‘memento mori, medieval poetry’. An example is this Francois Villon Ballad of the Ladies of Yore (several translations at the link). As might be expected, death featured prominently in the popular consciousness of the time, and you might find additional stuff (poetry & other genres and media); look for example for themes such as danse macabre, with echoes in our era, too – I’d recommend the Seventh Seal by Bergman – if films were poetry, this one is it.

This is a translation of The Ploughman and Death, actually a German prose work from c. 1400, but which reads like prose poetry to modern ears/ eyes.

The pre-Romantic graveyard poets might be worth exploring; you could also google 'elegy', laments, threnody, requiem, particularly for music.
posted by doggod at 7:54 AM on January 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

By Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.


Hannah Szenes wrote Blessed is the Match, or as it is known in Hebrew, Ashrei Ha-Gafrur. The poem was the last she wrote before her execution in 1944.

Blessed is the Match

Blessed is the match,
consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame
that burns in the heart's secret places.

Blessed is the heart that knows,
for honors sake,
to stop its beating.

Blessed is the match,
consumed in kindling flame.


by Finn Butler

Everyone who terrifies you is sixty-five percent water.
And everyone you love is made of stardust, and I know sometimes
You cannot even breathe deeply, and
The night sky is no home, and
You have cried yourself to sleep enough times
That you are down to your last two percent, but

Nothing is infinite,
Not even loss.

You are made of the sea and the stars, and one day
You are going to find yourself again.


MARGARITAE SORORI by William Ernest Henley


When I am dead, my dearest by Christina Rossetti
posted by gudrun at 8:45 AM on January 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

For a rich and knotty book of poems circling themes of death and meaning, try Gjertrud Schnackenberg's HEAVENLY QUESTIONS.
posted by diodotos at 8:50 AM on January 1, 2020

Coming back to add, Vortisaur mentioned Jisei, Japanese death poems. I can recommend the book Japanese Death Poems compiled by Yoel Hoffmann.

Here is one from that book, by Bufu, who died in 1792:

Oh, I don't care
where autumn clouds
are drifting to.

Original Japanese:

A mama yo
izuku e chiro to
aki no kumo
posted by gudrun at 9:07 AM on January 1, 2020

Mary Oliver's book titled "Thirst" is the collection of poems she wrote after the death of her partner of 40+ years.
posted by spindrifter at 9:19 AM on January 1, 2020

Stevie Smith is sometimes considered a lightweight, but I think she's underestimated. Death and loss are frequent themes in her work. Her best known poem, "Not Waving but Drowning," gives you some sense.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:28 AM on January 1, 2020

Poetry Rx: The Radiant Bodies of the Dead.

(I learned about this column thanks to a reply to my askmetafilter post and I love love love it. if you're reading this, thanks again yesbut :)
posted by i like crows very much at 9:51 AM on January 1, 2020

Probably the most famous poem about death in Spain is Coplas por la muerte de su padre by Jorge Manrique. Here it is with modernized spelling.

Nuestras vidas son los ríos
que van a dar en la mar,
que es el morir,
allí van los señoríos
derechos a se acabar
y consumir;
allí los ríos caudales,
allí los otros medianos
y más chicos,
y llegados, son iguales
los que viven por sus manos
y los ricos.

La Vida es Sueño by Calderón de la Barca is also quoted a lot, particularly this bit:

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción;
y el mayor bien es pequeño;
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.

posted by sukeban at 11:04 AM on January 1, 2020

Epitaph by Merrit Malloy.
posted by gaspode at 12:25 PM on January 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Mary Oliver's "The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond" gets at death and loss in ways that have always resonated for me.
posted by ldthomps at 12:39 PM on January 1, 2020

Since you mentioned cruelty, I thought of Baudelaire. He’s very cruel. This site is the best collection of his work which is where I found this demented Robert Lowell translation of “The Enemy”

The Ruined Garden

My childhood was only a menacing shower,
cut now and ten by hours of brilliant heat.
All the top soil was killed by rain and sleet,
my garden hardly bore a standing flower.

From now on, my mind's autumn! I must take
the field and dress my beds with spade and rake
and restore order to my flooded grounds.
There the rain raised mountains like burial mounds.

I throw fresh seeds out. Who knows what survives?
What elements will give us life and food?
This soil is irrigated by the tides.

Time and nature sluice away our lives.
A virus eats the heart out of our sides,
digs in and multiplies on our lost blood.

— Robert Lowell, from Marthiel & Jackson Matthews, eds., The Flowers of Evil (NY: New Directions, 1963)
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:40 PM on January 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

For a Dead Kitten

Put the rubber mouse away,
Pick the spools up from the floor,
What was velvet shod, and gay,
Will not want them, any more.

What was warm, is strangely cold.
Whence dissolved the little breath?
How could this small body hold
So immense a thing as Death?

Sara Henderson Hay
posted by Oliva Porphyria at 6:57 PM on January 1, 2020

More Walt Whitman: Song of Myself, section 6 ("A child said, What is the grass?")
posted by sigmagalator at 7:29 PM on January 1, 2020

And the Wilfred Owen poem that came to mind for me was Dulce et Decorum Est
posted by sigmagalator at 7:34 PM on January 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

My second favourite William Blake poem, A Poison Tree, came to mind. It is about death, mortality and introspection (my first favourite Blake is his famous poem The Tyger, which doesn't fit your criteria but is so worth a look as well)
posted by Zaire at 9:39 PM on January 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in spoken word, Jared Singer's poem about grief is truly something.

(& thanks for the shoutout, Gorgik!)
posted by frizzle at 5:56 PM on January 5, 2020

Clearances by Seamus Heaney
posted by seebee at 9:06 PM on January 5, 2020

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