Do the verses that poets write truly live after them, or do they start to fade with the poet’s last breath, persisting only as memories, echoes, or marks on paper. Once the author, the poem’s final arbiter, has gone do they exist like the text of Gilgamesh waiting for future translators to decode them, give them a proxy afterlife. Reading the recently published collection A Crater the Size of Calcutta by Linda Lamus and The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess the 2011 collection by Ellie Evans who died in 2012, made me consider if there a fundamental difference between a poem written by a living poet and one written by a poet who has since died.
Single poems can probably survive more easily than bodies of work. That is to say the poems life and afterlife are similar. A poet’s one or two best poems, anthology pieces possibly, or poems that fit their time or fashion well. The body of work raises more questions, possible contradictions, which there is no one left to answer. This points to where a poem’s meaning resides, the poet has one view, the reader or listener another, a translator a third, an editor a fourth, and so on. These meanings overlap, diverge, and any of those involved can choose to change their mind at any time. Except, of course, the dead.
Reputations come and go. The going, usually by neglect, goes gradually and unannounced. The coming, by definition, a more public event. Two poets that have recently come back are Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks. Both had substantial reputations for part of their lifetimes, and faded at least in part because they moved away from poetry. In their cases their deaths cleared access to major work that the poets themselves had made difficult in one way or another. In the case of Linda Lamus and Ellie Evans death was an obstacle, both writers had the conventional desire that their work should be known, but could not be there to see it through.
In the case of Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks their poetry has gone through, or is going through, the purgatory that select few writers’ work endures, on the way to come out as literature. There are many established literary pigeonholes for them to be popped into. In the case of more recently dead writers their literary timeline is still uncharted. What a reader is left with is ordinary grief, either because the reader knew them or has come to join those who know them trough their work. It is the kind of grief made up of one sided conversations and of an awareness of what might have been.
So I feel there is a difference between reading the word of a living writer, an established writer dead for a generation, and one who has recently died. If a reader chooses to immerse themselves in such work they will find a challenging solitude, like sitting at the end of a play waiting for someone to applaud.