Ann Howland

Now one complete cycle beyond our vision. Three trees are planted.

(more will follow) Your horse delivered a magnificent, independent foal

(Valour!) and survived a terrible contest with old barbed wire. Spring percolates, hesitates. The records are boxed, estates in order, patients redirected. Still . . . the winds blow thru the hills and the brightly colored wings are missed.

The poem was signed by her husband Gerry Hilferty and Ann's children Andrea and Josh. Later I learned that Hilferty, a designer of museums and exhibitions, had composed the piece, proving again that elegies are the most natural of poems (even for nonpoets). The form can bring out our best, often at our worst moments.

To emphasize that point, I quote Gerry Hilferty at length as he explains why he was inspired to eulogize Ann Howland in verse:

I thought I would first sit for awhile upon my trusty tractor, bright red, 65 horses —it cuts a mean swath in weeds and pasture. I spend a great deal of time on that tractor, trimming the Windy Hills. Ann used to say that mowing was my therapy, what kept me sane in a strange world.

And so my swath led me toward the knoll, highest point on Windy Hills, shaped like a prehistoric native mound. That's where Ann's best tree, a maple, is planted, dusted by her remains, commanding a distant view of horse paddock and cow pasture.

It was dusk. I unlatched the gate and checked the tree, mindlessly pruning leaves and branches.

At that point he felt Ann's energy around him —"the whole bit," he says, "all the memories, all the loss" — and was moved to write.

"I'm not sure Ann would have approved of what I put in the paper," he muses. "But I wrote an elegy not so much for Ann but for her friends. She cared so much about each one that I thought we might share the loss."

Let's stop here and consider what Gerry has said. He is struck by the muse, surrounded by images that inspire him to remember Ann. Sitting on his tractor and then tending her favorite tree, overlooking her farm, he is in a natural setting to remember his wife. The impulse kicks in. Moreover, he publishes the poem in the paper not for Ann but for friends of Ann like me, leaving a living legacy.

Read his poem aloud and listen to the voice. More than a year has passed since Ann's death, so Gerry remembers her in tranquility. The tone of his poem comes across unsentimentally on the page. He packs it with images and symbols that Ann's friends would associate with her: trees, horses, a foal, the barbed wire of her farm, the records of her patients, the wind and her "wings" of wit and wisdom. By doing so Gerry resists talking about his pain or grief and shares his poem like a gift with his audience.

When sketching ideas for elegies, ask yourself these basic questions:

1. Do I have a personal stake in the poem? (Obviously, if you are composing an elegy for someone you know, you are committed to the poem by that bond alone. But if you want to compose an elegy for a public or literary figure or base one on an inscription or experience in a cemetery, answering this question is a must.)

2. What images or objects are associated with the deceased? (We come to know people by what they keep, whether an heirloom or a lifestyle. Before you write your elegy, make a list of images that best depict the person or what the person stood for, believed in or loved.

These images will become symbols of the deceased, conveying meaning about a person's life.)

3. What principle of life do I want to convey? (This is your epiphany. Your truth can be as simple as Gerry Hilferty's, an affirmation of love "beyond our vision.")

4. What theme best accompanies that principle? (Once you know your epiphany, coming up with a theme —what your poem really is about under the surface — should be clear. Themes are related to feelings, an undercurrent running through the work. Decide what feeling best expresses your principle of life. For instance, in Hilferty's poem to his wife, his affirmation is best expressed through the feeling of trust, marking the occasion of another cycle or year but knowing that his wife can hear him.)

Although an elegy is about loss, it also should articulate a lesson that we learned, losing what we loved. Moreover, the elegy and other forms of occasional verse underscore a lesson about poetry. In ages past, it used to be a public activity. Occasional verse reminds us of that tradition and invites us to partake.

In closing, let's preview poems included in the mini anthology. I've tried to find ones that contain elements of the elegy and other kinds of occasional verse.

• Corrinne Hales, a poet and creative writing teacher, composed "For Mary Who Was Killed Here Before I Moved In" —a work that has elements of "the incident poem" and the elegy.

• Peter Makuck, an editor of a literary magazine and respected poet and teacher, composed "A Sense of the Other Side" — a work that combines elements of "the momentary poem" with a private eulogy.

• Neal Bowers's "Tenth-Year Elegy" combines elements of "the anniversary poem" with another private eulogy.

Perhaps Bowers's words are most apt in ending this chapter on occasion poems. "The most difficult thing to achieve in art is a profound simplicity — something that in an earlier time might have been called awe."

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