Today’s poem is a return to the poetic work of 1932, the year of The Good Earth‘s Pulitzer win. My poet today is a woman who, for all I know, never wrote another poem. She certainly never wrote another poem of any note—her (very) brief Wikipedia entry describes her as a “housewife” before it calls her a “poet”. Her name is Mary Elizabeth Frye, and you’ve almost certainly never heard of her before. But I think it’s almost as certain that you have read her poem before. And so tonight I want to stop and reflect on why that might be. First, Mary Frye’s poem:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
If you’re like me, you’ve seen these words before. Maybe someone sent them to you when you’d lost someone you loved. Maybe you sent them to someone in that position, having searched Google for “hopeful poems about death” or the like. Maybe you saw them printed in the bulletin at your great-aunt’s funeral, or inscribed in calligraphic letters on a Hallmark card. It’s the kind of poem that lives, that thrives, among people who otherwise read no poetry. And I thought it was worth wondering why that is.
If I want to be the cynical poet, I can certainly dig away at this poem’s foundations. Its use of end-rhyming couplets is almost sing-song. Its repetitive structure makes it feel like an eighth grader’s language arts homework (“Write a poem of at least ten lines that uses the phrase ‘I am…’ to begin each sentence.”). Its imagery is remarkably stock and cliche—the blowing wind, the diamond-glinting snow, the gentle rain. And yet…
And yet it comforts, doesn’t it? Whether or not it comforts you, it has comforted millions in its time—this poem, written by an otherwise totally obscure woman in Baltimore, has done more to calm grieving people throughout the English-speaking world than perhaps any other poem ever written. Why is it so successful at this? A few thoughts, none of which can be taken as authoritative: first, Frye is offering the one thing people want most, the reassurance that in some real way they are not cut off forever from the absent dead. But lots of poems attempt this and are less successful. I think more important is the very humdrumness of the language. Frye’s poem isn’t calling attention to itself—it’s a mantra, not art. It is designed not to explain death, but to quiet ourselves down until explanations arise from inside us. If the words do anything, they reassure us that when the world is most beautiful, and we feel the pang of agony that says “She would have liked that sunset” followed by “and I can never share another one with her”, we are reaching out to someone not lost at all. Moments that otherwise emphasize the gulf between the living and the dead are now emblematic of their union with each other.
I won’t try to analyze the poem’s theology or assess whether or not it helps the grief-stricken advance to the next stage of mourning. Mary Frye was sitting with a friend whose mother had died an ocean away when she wrote this. She wanted to comfort her friend, who never had a chance to say goodbye and feared she would never be able to visit her mother’s grave. And she wrote this poem on a brown paper shopping bag. It says what a person wants to say to a friend who is crying. Over the centuries, millions of us in that same position have attempted to put into words things that cannot be spoken. Some have gotten closer than others. For me, I think there is something beautiful about the fact that the woman who seems to have gotten closer than anyone else in recorded history is an unassuming native of Baltimore who never sought fame and who was nearly forgotten by the world. I won’t say she wrote the greatest poem I’ve ever read. But I know there are days ahead of me, years distant (I hope), when I will need it. And I’m glad that it’s there.