1st Edition

The Poetry of Loss Romantic and Contemporary Elegies

By Judith Harris Copyright 2023

    The Poetry of Loss: Romantic and Contemporary Elegies presents a renewed look at elegy as a long-standing tradition in the literature of loss, exploring recent shifts in the continuum of these memorial poems. This volume investigates the tensions arising in elegiac formulations of grief through detailed analyses of seminal poets, including Wordsworth, Keats, and Plath, using psychoanalytic precepts to reconceptualize consolation through poetic strategies of inner representation and what it might mean for personal and collective experiences of loss. Tracing the development of elegy beyond extant readings, this volume addresses contemporary constructs of mourning and their attendant polemics within the wider culture as extensions of elegiac longings and the tendency to refuse consolation and cede to the endlessness of grief. Furthermore, this book concludes that contemporary elegies break with conventions of poetic structure and expression; rather than the poets seeking resolution to grief through compensation, they often find themselves dwelling within the loss rather than externalizing and transcending it. The Poetry of Loss: Romantic and Contemporary Elegies examines these developing psychoanalytic concepts pertaining to a poetics of loss, providing readers with a new appreciation of mourning culture and contemporary attitudes towards grief.

    Introduction: The Elegiac Language and Expression of Grief

    CHAPTER ONE: Psychoanalytic Theories of Mourning and the Failure to Mourn

    CHAPTER TWO: The Lost Child in Wordsworth’s Elegies and John Bowlby’s Attachment and Loss

    CHAPTER THREE: Loss and Beauty: Keats’s Women and the "Ode to Psyche"

    CHAPTER FOUR: A Consolation of Beauty, Grief, and Sadness in Jane Kenyon’s Poems

    CHAPTER FIVE: Sylvia Plath’s Mock and Self-Elegies: A Kleinian Reading of "Edge"

    CHAPTER SIX: A Father’s Grief: Elegy and Counter-Tradition in Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel

    CHAPTER SEVEN: An Inheritance of Terror: Postmemory and Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in Second-Generation Jews after the Holocaust

    CHAPTER EIGHT: The Canticles of Grief: Contemporary Elegies and the Limits of Mourning

    CHAPTER NINE: The Literature of Loss: Elegies as a Therapeutic Strategy for Coping with Grief



    Judith Harris, Ph.D., is the author of three books of poetry (LSU) and a critical book Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing (SUNY Series in Psychoanalysis and Culture). She currently conducts seminars on poetry writing and psychoanalytic theory at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She is associate editor of Clio’s Psyche: the Psychohistory Forum and has held academic positions in the English and Creative Writing Departments of George Washington University, American University, and Catholic University. She was awarded poetry residencies at Yaddo and Frost Place. Her poetry has appeared nationwide in The Atlantic, Slate, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times blog, The Hudson Review and the syndicated newspaper column, ‘‘American Life in Poetry.’’ Her essays have appeared in Division Review: A Quarterly Psychoanalytic Forum; The Chronicle; Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society; and The Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis, and The British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. She was formerly affiliated with George Washington University, Catholic University, and American University. She has presented her work at the Library of Congress, Folger Shakespeare Library, and the American Psychoanalytic Association.

    "Our lives are filled with losses and gains. We keep mental representations, mental doubles, of lost persons with whom we have had meaningful connections. Through poetry Judith Harris describes our relationships with such mental doubles. This book opens windows to explore the role of creativity in human psychology."

    --Vamık Volkan, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry (University of Virginia) and author of Linking Objects and Linking Phenomena

    "Judith Harris is that rare combination of extraordinary poet and gifted literary scholar. Her latest book, The Poetry of Loss, will be of interest to anyone who believes that writing about death, especially in an elegy, is a sacred ritual to memorialize those who are no longer alive but who dwell in the hearts and words of the living. Using psychoanalysis, trauma theory, and the latest research on bereavement, she shows how language can transmute grief into imperishable art. One of her most powerful insights is the distinction between writing about bereavement and writing through bereavement. The Poetry of Loss is a profound study that deepens our understanding of love, loss, and recovery."

    --Jeffrey Berman, author of Dying to Teach: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning  

    "Judith Harris's book is a work of reverence and intelligence. In this brilliant exploration of the purpose of elegy in grieving, she not only does a compelling literary analysis using psychoanalytic frames, but she brings the poets of the past, distant past, and present together in a way that creates kinship and continuity for the living reader and poet. I went with Harris to the moment of Keats' throwing plates in Rome as his anger at dying surfaced and to Kenyon's side as she sorts through a loved one's belongings and stops to lament and writes about a spec of gravy left on a gravy boat. This book brings joy through the acknowledgement that sorrow and its expression in words, brings levity and light through the wisdom that we uncover and construct when we are impelled to write for healing."

    --Reinekke Lengelle, author of Writing the Self in Bereavement: A Story of Love, Spousal Loss, and Resilience

    “In her new volume, The Poetry of Loss: Romantic and Contemporary Elegies, Judith Harris considers not only the functions of the elegy – for poet and reader – but also the ethics of this art form. In current times, the move is towards memorializations that connect us through collective realizations that are disturbing rather than consoling.  From that perspective, she suggests, we might move, not towards a chronic melancholy but rather towards affirming the value of what has been loved and lost.  In this way, the poet’s journey into the vale of death affords a vicarious experience through which the reader might revisit their own losses and emerge strengthened in the process, having traversed that space, not alone, but in good company.  As a poet and psychoanalytic thinker, Judith Harris affords us a worthy companion to take us through this journey alongside some of the great elegiac poets of past and current times, as we consider the relationships between love, loss, and the ethics of living well.”

    -- Marilyn Charles (PhD, ABPP), Psychologist and Psychoanalyst at the Austen Riggs Center

    “Judith Harris writes with the authority of a widely-published psychoanalytic literary critic and an award-winning poet... The Poetry of Loss will be of great interest not only to creative writers, literary critics, and teachers of writing but also to psychoanalysts. Reading The Poetry of Loss, one sees the movement toward love, loss, and recovery, a process that is central to the talking cure.”

    -- Jeffrey Berman, English Department, University at Albany, SUNY (The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry)


    “The human experience, in this instance, is “facing the death of a loved one”, which stands at the center of Judith Harris’remarkable new book, The Poetry of Loss, Romantic and Contemporary Elegies. In this well constructed volume, Harris suggests that both reading and writing elegies can facilitate the grieving process, providing a medium for a rendering a healthy goodbye… [Harris] brilliantly succeeds in this heartful and scholarly endeavor.”

    --Jack Schwartz, The American Journal of Psychoanalysis