Last Words: the Great Poets Who Left Us in 2012

The year 2012 introduced us to plenty of new poets. Sadly, it also took some poets away:


Wislawa Szymborska 1923-2012

Wislawa Symborska was born, and died, in Poland. Her work was translated into several European languages, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese and Chinese. A translator herself, she became well-known internationally after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. Her poetry often featured war and terrorism and philosophical themes illuminated by understatement. Her body of work was not excessive. When asked why she had published so few poems, she replied: ‘I have a trash can in my home.’


Nothing much to report

until a muddled barfly hesitates,

fumbles with his pockets, and, like

a blasted fool, stumbles back

at one nineteen and fifty seconds

to retrieve his goddamn cap.


(from ‘The One Twenty Pub’

version from the Polish by Dennis O’Driscoll)


Adrienne Rich 1929-2012

Adrienne Rich was born in Maryland in the United States and was encouraged to read and write poetry from an early age. While still in her early twenties, W.H. Auden chose her first collection, A Change of World, for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Her poetry often had a political edge and, coming out in her late forties, she began to use lesbianism openly as material. Rich became the inaugural winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1986, and said that poetry was not the private preserve of academics. ‘It’s not just something for scholars to write about. It is for people.’


I sit inside, doors open to the veranda

writing long letters

in which I scarcely mention the departure

of the forest from the house.


(from ‘The Trees’)


Louis Simpson 1923-2012

Louis Simpson was born in Jamaica but emigrated to the United States when he was seventeen. Though starting with formal poetry, he later took on a free-verse style despite the success of the former. A former member of the ‘screaming eagles’ (or 101st Airborne Division) and winner of the Pulitzer prize, he investigated the United States from the point of view of an outsider, often taking everyday situations and ordinary Americans and finding the real definition to a casual glance or clichéd conversation.


That’s how it is with the car…


it’s theirs, they’re stuck with it.

Now they know what it’s like to sit

and watch the world go whizzing by.


In the fume of carbon monoxide and dust

they are not such good Americans

as they thought they were.


(from ‘American Classic’)


Jack Gilbert 1925-2012

Although his first collection of poetry was published in 1962 and his last in 2005, Jack Gilbert only published four collections, and was not even published in Britain until 2006. But through long, sometimes prosaic, lines, he dug at a mound of existence and smelled sadness, dug up a mound of existence and discovered life, and with these contrasting muses he proved you don’t have to publish dozens of collections to make an impact. From Pennsylvania, he really came to prominence as a poet with his last two collections, the latter of which, Refusing Heaven, earning him the National Book Critics Circle Award. In it, a bereaved man takes shelter in the woods, ‘knowing he will not/hear his voice all day,’ and stumbles upon introspection:


How strange to discover one lives with the heart

as one lives with a wife. Even after many years,

nobody knows what she is like. The heart has

a life of its own. It gets free of us, escapes,

is ambitiously faithful. Dies out unaccountably

after eight years, blooms unnecessarily and too late.


(from ‘Not the Happiness but the Consequence of Happiness’)


Dennis O’Driscoll 1954-2012

Author of nine collections of poetry, and former editor of Irish Poetry Review, Dennis O’Driscoll’s awards include a Lannan Literary Award and the E.M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also judged many major awards, including the Griffin Poetry Prize and the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize. His passion for poetry, not just his own but the poetry of others, led him to collaborate with Seamus Heaney on a book of interviews (O’Driscoll as interviewer, Heaney as interviewee). Interviewed himself in 2005 by Mark Thwaite, O’Driscoll said, ‘As somebody who has never in my life been inside a poetry workshop or creative writing class, either as student or tutor, I resist the idea that all aspiring writers need to somehow “qualify” as artists…’


A drift-net of wetness enmeshes the rented cottage,
towels and children’s swimwear sodden on the line.


Dry-gulleted drains gulp down neat rain.
Drops bounce from a leaking gutter with hard,
uncompromising slaps: and, like resignation
in the face of death, you contemplate winter


with something close to tenderness, the sprint
from fuel shed to back door, the leisurely
ascent of peat smoke, even the suburban haze
of boiler flues when thermostats are set.


(from ‘Weather Permitting’)