Why is so much poetry written in the aftermath of a tragic event, well, tragic? Sure, bereavement leaves us bereft, perpetrators of acts that leave others dead are mostly not nice people and victims don’t deserve to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but why use a poem to spell this out? These clichés are better kept in journals or blogs, not contorted into rhyme and called poetry when doggerel would be far more accurate.
So what does make a successful poem about a tragic event?
That’s for readers and people caught up in the event. Clichés are not respectful: they are lazy writing and disrespectful. Flex those writing muscles, go beyond your first reaction (“It was horrible!”) and start exploring why or how it was horrible. Why did this particular incident strike such a huge chord, you grabbed your pen or booted up your computer?
2. Unintentional significance loading
People caught up in the event were merely going about their daily lives with absolutely no idea the train was going to derail/building collapse/fire spread/bomb explode. So don’t load their ordinary daily activities with the significance of impending doom. No one could cope with the pressure of remembering to tell their family members they love them despite the blazing row over breakfast just in case… so don’t foist it on them.
3. The media reports
Are best kept in the media. A poem has to do more than just repeat what’s already been reported over and over in the media. Find a fresh angle, a lateral view or an aspect of the tragedy that hasn’t already been reported. If you can’t, forget the poem.
Statistics overwhelm. Many deaths are unimaginable. Numbers aren’t brilliant storytellers. Narrow your focus to an individual story. The individual needn’t be human: an abandoned car, an unclaimed passport, the space of someone’s absence says far more.
5. Marriage of form and content
Every successful poem marries form and content. The subject of a poem is no excuse. Like those self-publicists who cry “but it’s for charity”, your defence that your poem is about a tragic event will sound just as self-serving and pathetic. The fact it’s about a tragic event means you have to work harder: see point 1 about respect.