Grief and Grievance in Poetry

A Poetry Squawk
By Laura McCullough
Author of Jersey Mercy and Panic.

Laura_McColloughRobert Frost said that poetry is about grief and politics is about grievance, and yet we often come to our poetry with grievances, old and new, personal or global, and it is sometimes easier to speak of them than it is to dig into the underlying sources of grief. In therapeutic circles, I’ve heard it said that if you are angry, find out what it is that hurt you, what has made you sad. Yet it’s easier to speak of the former—the what-happeneds and the who-done-whats—the legitimate issues of loss and anger, and much harder to delve beyond the mere facts to craft poems lush with the weight of grief, the sadnesses, the sorrows. How do we write, not out of grievance, but from and toward grief? How do we transform our losses into art even as we, sometimes, still wrestle with healing ourselves?

Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” is much loved for many reasons, but one of them, I’d suggest, is that the voice of an adult reflecting on the grievances a son may have against a father ultimately goes beyond grievance to discover more complex aspects of love. The boy had grievances; the adult speaker has grief. It is what makes the last lines possible and so poignant, the movement from “no one thanked him” through “the chronic angers of that house” to “love’s austere and lonely offices.”

Another poem about parents and children, Tony Hoagland’s “Lucky,” is in the voice of an adult child dealing with an elderly parent moving, it seems, towards death, perhaps hospice, and the poem explores the change in power relations over a lifetime. The child the speaker was clearly had grievances; in some way, it seems, the parent was cruel or punishing when the boy was young. Now, she has become like a child, and the speaker, aware of his old anger,  is trying nevertheless to care for her. He mistreats her mildly—holding her newly bathed body in the air a little too long because he can—but also wants to feed her ice cream to please her when she has so few pleasures left. This is not a poem that lists the ways a mother might have failed; it is ultimately a poem about failing and forgiveness, about the difficulty—which is a grief—in relationships.

The poem “Quarantine,” by Eavan Boland, combines political and historical grievance (the Great Famine) with individual grief (a couple dying in the cold as they seek refuge). The heteronormative line “And what there is between a man and woman” really could be written, “And what there is between two people who love each other” (or some more beautiful rendering—I’m making a content point here) because the universal anguish applies to all couplings, even non-romantic ones. This could, for example, have been a parent and child in this horrific narrative. The power of the poem, however, is its movement from a political grievance (“the toxins of a whole history”) to a smaller personal (albeit anonymous) grief (“The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her”).

In closing, one last look at grievance and grief in poetry. Jamaal May offers a beautiful example of interrogating grievance and going headlong into grief and sorrow in his poem, “Sky Now Black With Birds”, which you can watch him perform on YouTube. May explores racial violence and its repercussions, the difference between revenge and justice, anger and restitution and what it means to be human. This was fertile territory for Homeric epic in ancient Greece, and remains so for poets today.

Laura McCullough is the author of The Wild Night Dress, selected by Billy Collins as a winner of the Miller Williams Poetry Prize and forthcoming in 2017 from the University of Arkansas Press. Recent books include the poetry collection Jersey Mercy (Black Lawrence Press) and A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (University of Georgia Press). Her other books of poetry include Rigger Death & Hoist Another (Black Lawrence Press),  Panic (winner of the Kinereth Genseler Award from Alice James Books), Speech Acts (Black Lawrence Press), What Men Want (XOXOX Press), and The Dancing Bear (Open Book Press).  She edited The Room and the World: Essays on the Poet Stephen Dunn (University of Syracuse Press). She teaches at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey and the Sierra Nevada low-residency MFA program. She is the founding editor of Mead: the Magazine of Literature and Libations. Learn more at