Famous for poems including The Raven, The Bells, and Annabel Lee, Edgar Allan Poe remains a staple among poetry and literature classes. In the same vein, Emily Dickinson’s poems such as Hope is the Thing with Feathers and I Heard a Fly Buzz - When I Died hold just as much relevance and prestige. Both poets boast a lengthy collection of poems, and often these pieces reflect on personal tragedies.
Poe experienced a good deal of loss in his life. He lost his birth mother, his adoptive mother, and his wife over the course of his lifetime, many of them succumbing to tuberculosis. As a result, a lot of his poems grapple with life after losing a loved one. His most famous poem, The Raven, personifies death as a raven that only speaks the word “Nevermore”, reiterating to the grieving narrator that he will never see his lost love again.
Annabel Lee tells a similar tale. The poem’s narrator recounts the recent death of his love, and reminisces on their connection to one another as well as the sea. These poems deal with the tragedy of grief, often posing the question, “what do we do without our loved ones?”
Dickinson takes a more introspective approach, examining one’s personal relationship to death. In I Heard a Fly Buzz - When I Died, as the title suggests, Dickinson narrates the poem as a recently deceased person. She describes the people surrounding her and the silence of the room, save for the lone fly buzzing. The poem ends with her vision cutting to black – no hopeful message, no journey to the afterlife, just darkness. Through this poem, Dickinson poses the idea that the idea of heaven and eternal bliss after death is a naïve wish, and all that follows is unknown nothingness.
Not all of her poems are quite this bleak. In fact, Dickinson mentions a journey to the afterlife in Because I could not stop for Death. She tells a story of Death picking her up in a carriage, and the two of them riding towards eternity. In an interesting twist, Dickinson ends up passing life by in death, as she drives past a house and a school with children in recess. It’s sort of like life flashing before Dickinson’s eyes, offering one last appreciative glimpse at the world around her.
These two poets talk about the same subject, death, in wildly different ways, yet touch on similar themes. While Poe mourns the living as well as the dead, Dickinson postulates what happens to the passing individual. Essentially, Poe is the audience while Dickinson is the subject. In both circumstances, the tragic event relates to them and their experience with it.
When writing about tragedy in a poem, the point of view can make all the difference. How you (and the audience) perceive an event can generate differing impacts and deliver separate messages. Take the time to consider what you want to say about tragedy. Would it be more effective to position the narrator as an innocent bystander, helpless to watch the tragic event unfold? Or would it be more powerful to place the reader in the thick of it, and have them live it through your words?
Keep in mind, words do have power, so be respectful when writing about tragedy. You can cross into distasteful, particularly if you overindulge in graphic descriptions. You should be especially cautious if you’re writing about an event you yourself have not lived through – you want to honor those who have without appropriating or exploiting their experience.
Imposter syndrome may try to rear its ugly head when writing tragic poems. You might ask yourself, “what authority do I have to talk about this topic? Why should anyone care?” Your perspective matters. Every person has a unique viewpoint, and that alone makes your poem worth writing. Your voice and experience differs from everyone around you, so write that poem! You never know who you’ll reach with your poetry.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.
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