American poets writing about death and mourning since the middle years of the twentieth century have faced severe challenges, both philosophical and linguistic, in composing an elegiac art for modern readers. In the aftermath of two world wars and the accompanying assault on religious belief, it became increasingly difficult for poets to perform the traditional elegiac rites of honouring the dead and consoling the living. The classical myths and ceremonies that had been carried over into Christian elegy, helping to sustain belief in immortality, were now likely to appear hollow and ineffective. What ideas and what words might sustain a sceptical post-war generation in the midst of massive personal and public loss? Since 1945, attitudes to death have altered dramatically and so, too, have artistic responses. Peter Sacks notes how death has ‘tended to become obscene, meaningless, impersonal’, an event either ‘stupefyingly colossal in cases of large-scale war or genocide’ or ‘clinically concealed behind the technology of the hospital’.1 The consequences for the writing of elegy have been profound, with modern American authors wilfully renouncing traditional elegiac codes and conventions, or else treating them ironically, while flagrantly disputing the comforting, consoling function of earlier poetry. However, if modern merican poetry has sometimes displayed ‘a drying up or a deliberate termination of the familiar expressions of grief ’, it has also been astoundingly inventive in its artistic exploration of death and mourning.
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