Death, Poetry, and the Attempt to Fill the Void

By Ashna Asim

Foucault speculated that we live death – that death shapes who we are. In The Birth of the Clinic, he discusses how death has changed over different time periods. In the Renaissance, death was the great equalizer. Irrespective of the social hierarchies that exist while alive, it was believed that we live the life we are meant to live after we die. During the Renaissance, death was seen as universal – as something that erases individuality. Foucault argues that this contrasts with modern culture, in which death gives rise to singularity. In modern day, the individual defines him or herself through the notion of death. Foucault argued that: “Death left its old tragic heaven and became the lyrical core of man: his invisible truth, his visible secret” (Foucault 172).

We are a unique species because we live with the knowledge that we are going to die. For Foucault, death is the individual’s truth and visible secret. Through the gaze of the autopsy, Foucault argues that what was once invisible becomes potentially visible – hence what Foucault calls a “visible invisible.” And yet, even through the autopsy, we are “unable to see clearly” in what is a “strange form of blindness” (Boundas 526).

How then do we attempt to grasp the “lyrical core of man”?

How do we carry the weight of this truth: that one day we will die?

Our society has been described by some as death-phobic, often regarding our reluctance to discuss end-of-life plans with our loved ones. In the health care system, conversations surrounding death are often shrouded in fear.

And yet, we live with death. It is pervasive in our literature and film. It is pervasive throughout our art.

Why is it, then, that talking about death can be so difficult? The answer to “What happens after I die?” is not simple – it can’t be simple. That’s why, when I would ask my mom about death, she would turn to poetry – quoting the Urdu poet Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi:

Who says that when death comes I will die?

I am but a river that will join with the ocean.

Death and dying are dealt with extensively in poetry. Death has a myriad of different meanings. Death has been compared to falling asleep, yet also to waking up. Take for example John Donne’s Death, Be Not Proud, when the speaker says:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally 

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. 

In this poem, death is personified. Death is the enemy that we battle against throughout our lives. Death is portrayed as transient – while the soul is immortal. When we die, we cease to be prisoners of death. Death is simply a gateway to another reality when we “wake eternally.” Death is conquered.

Death is the end but death is also an escape from the drudgery of life. Death can be seen as cutting life too short, and yet death can give life meaning. For Ghalib – the Urdu and Persian poet of the Mughal Era – death is change, movement, and progression:

Ambition is busy weaving dreams

Of happiness:

Yet there is death

Without which dull would be life itself (26).

The Romantics explored the theme of death extensively. Percy Byshe Shelley mourns the death of fellow poet John Keats in Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats:

      He is made one with Nature: there is heard

       His voice in all her music, from the moan

       Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;

       He is a presence to be felt and known.

In this elegy, death is inscribed onto the physical body – and thus, it is the body that is dying and the spirit that is being freed (becoming “one with Nature”). The poem suggests that life is a dream from which we are awakened after we die. The poem also draws a distinction between the process of dying – which is feared and associated with negative imagery (“leprous corpse) – and death, which is associated with the “incarnations of the stars.” What I find particularly compelling is that the poem suggests that Keats conquered death through his art. The poem suggests that Keats’ life itself has become a work of art and thus art is in the position to create eternity.

There’s that concept – eternity. A concept as inexplicable as death. Here, art is the vehicle to eternity.

Death is to be conquered. But death is also surrender. Death has its own significance in various cultures and across different time periods. Philosophers have philosophized, poets have poeticized. Death is a void we fill with metaphors. We try to make sense of the unknowable, try to find answers to questions that are difficult to grasp, difficult to articulate.

It makes perfect sense to me that poetry is used as a vehicle to probe the conceptual framework of death. If indeed death gives rise to singularity, then poetry allows us to fill the void with our own meanings, our own abstract visions of what death means to us. It allows us to find, in Foucault’s words, “the lyrical core of man.” Poetry allows us to find some solace, or at the very least, something to hold on to.

 

References:

Boundas, Constantin V. Columbia Companion to Twentieth-Century Philosophies. New York: Columbia U Press, 2009. Print.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture. New York : Routledge, 2001. Print.

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud.” Poetry Foundation, 2017. Web.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic; an Archaeology of Medical Perception. London: Tavistock, 1973. Print.

Ghalib, Mirza Asadullah Khan. Ghalib: Selected Poems. Ed. Ahmed Ali. Trans. Ahmed Ali. N.p.: Is. M. E. O, 1969. Online.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats.” Poetry Foundation, 2017. Web.

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