Your Favorite Poems on Loss

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In honor of National Poetry Month, we asked readers to join us in sharing some favorite poems. Leo Rubinkowski obliged:

I have a favorite poem for you. It’s not my absolute favorite, but I don’t think the poem I’ve long felt is my absolute favorite really lends itself to quick reading. Kenneth Patchen’s “I Have No Place to Take Thee” from Panels for the Walls of Heaven (1946) [Ed note: find it in here] is two-and-a-half pages of unbroken text …

Even if it’s not my absolute favorite, though, Henrik Nordbrandt’s “At the Gate” packs more of a violent punch than any other poem I know.

I’m constantly amazed at the economy with which Nordbrandt expresses deep loss. The seven stanzas are each so vivid, but the third stands out. Nordbrandt questions the ability of language to encapsulate grief, but also explicitly relies on his language to express fully the scope of grief:

What can I say about the world
in which your ashes sit in an urn
other than that?

The construction turns back on itself, wrapping existence up in what can be said, whether because feeling is too much or too little. It reminds me of Wittgenstein: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass in silence.”

And then the sixth and seventh stanzas: a crescendo of emotion, followed by a quiet, absolute statement, both inadequate to the task and perfectly expressive of the condition of the world.

Every time I read it, it kills me.

***

Stewart Burke recommends “The Locust Swarm”:

My favorite poem about war and loss—and single mothers—focuses on war’s aftermath. It is attributed to a late Sung/early Yuan Dynasty poet (ca. 1200 CE) named Hsu Chao (Xu Chao in Pinyin), who may have been the Buddhist monk of the same name. To my mind, the imagery anticipates the drones and cruise missiles of today’s warfare. Here is the American poet Donald Rexroth’s translation from his One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

In the poem, a swarm of locusts hatches from a soldier’s corpse and flies away from the battlefield, warning the soldier’s wife that he has died. The last few lines:

Ever after
She would not let her children
Injure any insect which
Might have fed on the dead. She
Would lift her face to the sky
And say, “O locusts, if you
Are seeking a place to winter,
You can find shelter in my heart.”

***

Michael recommends A. R. Ammons’s “In View of the Fact” as “a poignant, funny, beautiful rumination on loss, death, and love”:

On the aesthetics, I love the way the poem moves. It starts with the commonplace idea that the people an older person knows begin to die off to the point that funerals take over their social calendar, much the way younger people seem to spend the summers of their late 20s and early 30s attending an endless string of weddings. The poem then pivots from its resigned stance toward the inevitability of loss and death:

at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip

to the ones left: ...

While death and loss will come, Ammons will hang on to what earthly pleasures he can while time allows. Finally, the poem ends on a sublime note, lines written so softly that they should be whispered, full of truth and a love for life and even death:

until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every

loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter

and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. …

Personally, I love this poem because I discovered it in the worst year of my young life. I lost two grandparents within a few months of each other, as well as a close friend from high school due to mental health issues.

Great poetry can do many things—challenge us intellectually, show us beauty, allow us to inhabit the gray areas of language, entertain us. This poem does all those things for me, but it also gave me comfort in a time of loss, and in its ending lines I found wisdom on how to live in light of death and loss.

If you have a poem that speaks to you, we’d like to hear about it: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from another reader, Ken:

Wordsworth’s “Surprised by Joy” is the most devastating description of the pain of mourning a child while your life returns to “normal.”

From the poem:

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!

***

Barney recommends Kenneth Slessor’s “Five Bells,” about the death of a friend:

But I hear nothing, nothing … only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There’s not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait—
Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten …

***

And from Joseph, a poem about loss along with the story of how it was found:

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—my friend Ashley was walking down the street, to get to her next mortuary science class at UM-Twin Cities. It was a windy autumn morning. The wind blew this poem into her hands.

Ashley told me later on, that the poem gave such a perfect definition of human kindness—better by far than any dictionary, encyclopedia, or religious text could have furnished—that she kept the poem the wind blew at her, for that reason. This was notable because ordinarily Ashley hates poetry. Since that autumn, I have always recited that poem from memory, for every Thanksgiving celebration I have attended.

It’s “Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.