Poetry helps us face facts of life … and death

Among all the tributes to David Bowie last week, the lines that stayed in my mind were by the man himself, written and sung with the carefree insight of youth.

Turn and face the strange,
Oh look out now you rock and rollers,
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older.

With Changes, Bowie’s 1972 hit, the 25-year-old rising star acknowledged one unavoidable fact of life: unless, like Hendrix, you die young, old age will claim you. Not many years earlier, The Who sang for My Generation: “I hope I die before I get old”(and drummer Keith Moon managed it). Bowie was more philosophical perhaps. Confronting the realization that life is finite, he told the BBC in 2002: “You must realise, though, ageing doesn’t faze me at all. It’s the death part that’s really a drag”.

Death came last week and with it – for fans across the world – the shock discovery that David Bowie, the master of self-invention, was not only capable of growing older, he was mortal too.

When Alan Rickman died two days later, also from cancer –  both of them following just three weeks after Motorhead’s Lemmy – social media marked the passing of these three with a curious meme: a defiant finger raised to cancer. Angry tweets and Facebook postings seemed to show incredulous rage that such celebrated souls could succumb to something so mundane (although the disease in its many forms visits one in two of us).

It seemed as if the selfie generation had suddenly come face to face with hard facts of life. Amid a mass outpouring of grief, another tweet brought wry hope:

“We’re all going to die and poetry helps us live with that.”

Was it coincidence that @DesKellyOBE of the National Care Forum chose last week to recycle Why People Need Poetry a 2013 TEDGlobal talk from Edinburgh? If not coincidence, it was a clever choice. Stephen Burt, American literary critic, scholar, sci-fi fan and cross-dresser is, as the New York Times describes him: “the critic who, more than any other, understands the here and now and flourishes amid the hipsters and the sonneteers.” He is also a performer and, as poet Albert Goldbarth observes in the same article, “there must be a kind of bonding between that interest in his own life” — cross-dressing — “and the idea of costuming, with different identities, that we find in the superhero universe.”

In our earthly here and now, Burt has written, ‘self-fashioned’ photogenic figures like David Bowie, epitomise “the presentation of what and who you are…something you created (with help) in order to make your way in the world.”

Yet poetry, Burt’s TED talk contends, helps us to enjoy being mortal. “Poetry makes me want to be alive,” he says, “Poems made me happier and sadder and more alive.” Even, especially, while contemplating death.

Ye olde grim reaper

There are plenty of poems about death. Search the PoemHunter and you find a daunting list. Some, like John Donne’s Death Be Not Proud, chide the grim reaper, raising (perhaps) a 16th century version of that tweeted finger,

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

Others (not on PoemHunter) are deeply personal, like Thomas Hardy’s poems written after the death of his wife Emma. His coming to terms with grief and loss poignantly produced what critics regard his best work – and (for me) comfort in the certainty that he had lived and loved.  At Castle Boterel the poet retraces the path he took with Emma many years earlier:

Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order’
But what they record in colour and cast
Is – that we two passed.

In Burt’s eclectic selection death is not always explicit. Poetry is where we can go when we want to remember “someone or something, to look beyond death, to say goodbye.” He begins with A E Housman’s From Far, From Eve and Morning, which has inspired several sci-fi book titles:

Speak now and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

And, in contrast, the more elusive contemporary ‘language poetry’ of  Rae Armentrout, whose The Garden starts with Oleander and lipstick ads from the 1950s. “It’s about the Garden of Eden,” Burt explains,  “and the biblical story of the Fall, in which sex as we know it and death and guilt come into the world at the same time.”

Bowie’s enigmatic last works, Lazarus and Blackstar, may well demand his attention too. So I see a whimsical fit with Burt’s last 2013 TED choice. John Keat’s ‘mysterious’ unfinished work, This Living Hand, reaches towards the living from beyond the grave. Not Lazarus but with a firm grasp of life.

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is —
I hold it towards you.