Poetry to Help the Dying

 Over the past few years, I have prepared and given numerous poetry presentations for the elderly, each focusing on a different subject or theme. I describe that poetry program in “A poetry program for the very elderly — Narrative perspective on one therapeutic model,” Vol. 27, Journal of Poetry Therapy, Issue 1 (March 2014).

I sent that article to a friend. Her reply was very generous — and she asked a favor.

As I knew, her cancer had recurred, and she had just been given a grim prognosis. She asked whether I could send her some poems that might help her prepare for death while at the same time she took steps to fend off the cancer.

In my subsequent search for material, I found quite a lot of poetry (and prose) written from the perspective of a person preparing for, or trying to deal with, someone else’s death. I found very little written from the perspective of a person preparing for his or her own death.

There is another reason why it is difficult to gather an appropriate set of such materials. Each person comes to the subject with unique emotions, thoughts and needs. Some of what I thought would be helpful for my friend might not be relevant to someone else.

I hope what follows helps some.

I have additional material that I am not posting here, because I think that material might be counter-productive for some people. If you want additional material — either for yourself or for someone you know — let me know, and we can discuss.

If you know of poems not identified here that you think would be helpful, I urge you to bring them to my attention so that I can consider including them.

Marvin Wexler

[email protected]



“Master of beauty” from “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” from COLLECTED POEMS: 1937-1971 by John Berryman. Copyright © 1989 by Kate Donahue Berryman. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. CAUTION: Users are warned that this work (like the works below) is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Permission to use “Let Evening Come,” by Jane Kenyon, has been given by the publisher of Jane Kenyon Collected Poems (2005), Graywolf Press.

Permission to use “Titanic,” by David Slavitt, has been given by the publisher of Big Nose (1983), LSU Press.

“The Hospital” by Patrick Kavanagh is quoted from Collected Poems, edited by Antoinette Quin (Allen Lane, 2004), by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of the late Katherine B. Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.

Permission to use the excerpts from Infinite Life (2004) by Robert Thurman, has been given by the publisher Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

Permission to use “Fishing In The Keep of Silence,” by Linda Gregg, has been given by the publisher of All of It Singing (2008), Graywolf Press.

Permission to use the translations by Coleman Barks of Rumi’s poems “Out Beyond Ideas,” “Wean Yourself,” and “Who Says Words With My Mouth?” has been given by Coleman Barks. Those poems and other Rumi poems can be found in The Essential Rumi, Translations by Coleman Barks (Harper Collins 2004) and Rumi The Book of Love, Translations and Commentary by Coleman Barks (Harper Collins 2003).