Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 7, 2011

The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, edited by Kevin Young

A friend recently asked if I could suggest a poem she might read at a memorial service for her grandmother. I love those kinds of requests, that set off mini research projects. And this one was made relatively easy because I’d recently bought The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, edited by Kevin Young (Bloomsbury, 2010). The selections are from a poet and anthologist working today and has a fresh feel. For me, the anecdotal nature of many poems makes it perhaps a better book to read through when dealing with grief than a perfect gift for ministers of any kind. But Kevin Young suggests it can be used for both individuals and ceremonies, and the subject index notes poems perhaps best suited for funerals. It also categorizes the poems according to who’s being mourned including: mothers, fathers, siblings, friends and strangers, and daughters and sons: this last includes grief for children not born, or those who survived for less than a day, which I found some of the most heart-breaking poems.

Kevin Young was inspired to put together this collection after writing about the death of his father in his latest poetry collection, Dear Darkness, and he organized this anthology according to some of what he experienced: reckoning, regret, remembrance, ritual, recovery, and redemption. He writes, “A poem must be willing to be unwilled, beckoned by need.” And the need for comfort in the face of death may be answered, for a time, by one of the wonderful elegies by Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Natasaha Tretheway, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton and many others.

I typed my friend copies of poems by Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Mary Oliver, and the one I thought she’d choose by Jane Kenyon: Let Evening Come. I love that poem. I think the Dickinson and Frost are beautiful, but perhaps require more pondering – asking to be looked at on a page, rather than be heard among many other words. And Jane Kenyon’s repetition, a sort of chant, beautifully leads us from grief back to the world.

Even when grief isn’t a big part of your present life, or perhaps even better, this is a good collection for poetry lovers. And you can be the person someone might come to asking for a poem; or feel free to give me a nudge. You know this is the work we live for: answering the question, Any idea of what I should read? It must matter, even when you’re left unsure whether your choices hit the mark. My friend didn’t read aloud the poems I selected or any other, but stayed in the pew to let her daughter read When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou. That must have been something, too.

For a roundup of Poetry Friday posts, please visit: Irene Latham at Live. Love. Explore. I’m currently enchanted with Irene’s latest volume of poems, The Color of Lost Rooms, which I’ll blog about later this month.



  1. Thank you for this lovely review, Jeannine. I know someone who needs this book right now…

  2. Jeannine, my favorite “grief” poem is Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods.”
    I look forward to checking out this anthology! And yay, you got the book!! 🙂

  3. This sounds like a marvelous book. Grief seems to be one emotion we continue to struggle with, something I ponder from time to time. For me, as much as the poets you mention speak to that emotion, music comes first. I always turn to Mozart’s Requiem and Brahms’ German Requiem. The Brahms, especially, because it speaks to both the dead and those who are left to mourn.

  4. I hope the book gives comfort and consolation and company; certainly the voices here strive for that in many different ways.

  5. Irene, thank you for the link. I think you would like this book.
    And I just sent you a “test email” to the address on your website, as it sounds like you didn’t get my email from just before Christmas, saying how much I was liking your book.

  6. yes, music can be so healing, even when it pulls you apart a bit. And sometimes can be best to join the grievers. I like these poems as they can be read alone and as needed. I know I’ll return to this book. Thanks, Kathy!

  7. Another wonderful recommendation from you, Jeannine. Thank you.
    Poems can go so beautifully right to the heart of grief, comforting and perhaps shining a light on a difficult path.

  8. Thank you for this review, Jeannine. I was recently on a search for such a poem, could have used this.

  9. Re: from Laura @AuthorAmok
    I think you’d like this anthology — lots of narrative poems, honed and honest. But it doesn’t include Wendell Berry. Of course every great poet must have more than one grief poem. Volume ii?

  10. Lorraine, I think you would like this collection. I was so pleased to pick it up in a shop when I wasn’t looking for anything like it. Lots of light and attention shining on life and death and where they meet.

  11. The poet/anthologist wrote that he, too, was looking for such a book and surprised not to find one. So got to it. I love people like that!

  12. Oh I need to put this book on my shelf. There have been times when I wanted to share a poem when I’ve sent a sympathy card and didn’t know where to look.
    Thank you for the review.

  13. I’ll be looking for this one — as I’m still trying to make sense of losing five people last year. Even people who claim they don’t like or read poetry find consolation in verse when coping with grief. My brother-in-law, the last person you’d ever find reading a poem, actually wrote one when his father died. Thanks for your review, Jeannine.

  14. Thanks for this review. I’m going to order a copy of the book.
    I read Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come” at my father-in-law’s funeral. I love the poem too.
    Elaine Magliaro

  15. Susan, I know you’ll be touched by so much of the work here, and it includes some of our favorite poets. How kind of you to want to share a poem with a card. What a gift that would be.

  16. Oh, Jama. I knew it had been a tough year for you, but didn’t know the numbers. I’m so sorry. And you’re right, that loss brings people toward poems who wouldn’t otherwise do so. That’s a great story about your brother-in-law. One just never knows.

  17. Reading Kenyon’s poem must have been quite the moment. I’m happy you’re going to order the book and confident you won’t be disappointed. Thanks for reading, Elaine.

  18. Grief Poems
    Poems about grief are so heartwrenching and emotionally raw when they are done well. And even though they can be so sad, the connections you can make with them make them irresistible reads. In addition, having a good working knowledge of poems on grief allows us to help those we care about (and ourselves) as you did, and that is no small thing.
    So thanks for sharing this. I would also recommend a children’s picture book called This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort that was published after the 9/11 attacks. It has very accessible poems about grief, pain, and recovery.

  19. Re: Grief Poems
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment and for the book recommendation, one that’s new to me. I appreciate both!

  20. Amy, xo xo

  21. Jeannine, I bought this book back when you wrote this post, and I have needed it this week as a good friend’s son just died. Thank you for your work here; your gentle and wise words have a ripple effect beyond the day on which you write. A.

  22. I’m so sorry about that terrible loss. I hope you find words that offer some consolation and create more ripples, like the one you so kindly tell me of.

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