Poetry and Tragedy: “The Dead”

Poetry and Tragedy: “The Dead”

Billy Collins who served as the United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, selected by the Librarian of Congress, has been called “The nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” In the wake of 9/11, he was asked by USA TODAY to select a piece of his work that he believed had a message for those difficult times.

At that time, Collins wrote, “In the aftermath of the catastrophe of Sept. 11, which was nothing less than a psychic invasion of the United States, many people I know turned intuitively to poetry as a source of sanity and perhaps even consolation. Poetry has always accommodated loss and keening; it may be said to be the original grief counseling center. But American poets will have a hard time if they attempt a direct response to these events, because poetry by its nature moves us inward, not outward to the public and the collective.

Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, the media has tried to fill that hole, that vacuum, with talk and print, but unsuccessfully. Poetry will not fill that space either, but poetry creates its own space apart from such terrible emptiness. It’s not that poets should feel a responsibility to write about this calamity. All poetry stands in opposition to it. Pick a poem, any poem, from an anthology and you will see that it is speaking for life and therefore against the taking of it. A poem about mushrooms or about a walk with the dog is a more eloquent response to September 11th than a poem that announces that wholesale murder is a bad thing.”

Collins chose The Dead which at first appears to be a seemingly simple allegory for death. The Dead gives the first impression of being a light poem, but the poem’s final lines bridge the divide between humor and its much deeper meaning. Further, if you’ve been around long enough for someone you love to have died, you’ll appreciate its sentiment.

The Dead

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

Billy Collins

The animated short film, The Dead, is from Billy Collins’ action poetry series, which he produced for the Sundance Channel. The poetry is by Collins, with animation provided by Juan Delcan of Spontaneous.

The Dead: Action Poetry by Billy Collins

Animation by Juan Delcan

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