(Note: this is the first of four posts about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post outlines some unique characteristics of poetry as a method of communication, while the following posts will look at specific poems on the topic of Death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought-provoking.)
Assuming that writings that describe the human condition related to death bear importance, what makes poetry uniquely suited to enable individuals to cope with death? Poetry stands as a distinctive form of communication for a number reasons, and these distinctions allow to poetry to aid individuals in inimitable ways.
First, poetry uses figurative language, which allows for the speaker to express ideas, which would be difficult to articulate via normal vocabulary. Barry Klassel in the article “The Two-Headed Calf: Poetry and the Experience of Being Human” writes, “Poetry is the art form that conveys aspects of human experience through a concentrated and precise use of language” (Klassel 2). Poetry utilizes many literary devices such as metaphors, similes, extended imagery, and rhymes, which set it apart from other types of communication. These characteristics allow poetry to express the human condition in figurative language, which is more effective in instances where literal explanations fall short. Poetry communicates “what is deeply felt and essentially unsayable; that is the paradox on which the poem necessarily turns. A poet uses language as a painter uses color, a primary material out of which to make art” (Alexander 18). Traumatic events like illness or death that might be difficult for the speaker to describe in normal terms can be retold through a medium such poetry, which allows for the manifestation of feelings and not just literal occurrences. Poetry provides the poet with a medium through which to manipulate language in unconventional ways.
Second, poetry allows the readers to experience what they would be unable to experience otherwise. Klassel again notes, “The power of poetry opens us to realms of experience we couldn’t visit otherwise (except, perhaps, through another art form such as film). And while good poetry has an immediate effect, it’s also multidimensional in its ability to evoke layers of meaning beyond first impressions” (Klassel 2). Poetry connects individuals to people and events, which they would be unable to experience, or even understand, otherwise. Events like traumatic illness and death can be described in understandable, relatable terms through poetry. Also, as this quote notes, the figurative language of poetry often leads to a multitude of potential meanings, indicating that poetry can instruct people in numerous ways. The same poem can impact the same individual in several ways over time, as these manifold meanings are uncovered. In a similar manner, “the poem in its act of meaning-making turns away from the literal, its truth bound to what can be evoked” (Alexander 18). For different listeners, different truths can be derived from poetry, giving this medium an extensive and diverse range of influence.
All of these characteristics make poetry uniquely suited to enable individuals to cope with death.
For further reading, check out the following articles:
Alexander, Meena. “What Use Is Poetry?.” World Literature Today 87.5 (2013): 17-21. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.
Klassel, Barry. “The Two-Headed Calf”: Poetry And The Experience Of Being Human.” Humanist 68.4 (2008): 30-33. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.
I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. Also, stayed tuned for the next three post, which will expound on these ideas further.