Oddly, I have now written two poems about my father's death in the past couple of months -- one while I was in Provincetown, and one last night. He died in January 1994; I've written about it since then, of course, but almost nothing that felt like a real poem. (As opposed to, you know, just scribbling or working stuff out for myself or therapy whatever.)
I won't go so far as to say that now my dad's death is just "material" like anything else; of course it's still something that cuts closer to my own heart than, say, a poem about a squirrel running around the yard. But I feel like I'm working with it a bit more, shall we say, impersonally now -- and that feels like a good thing, a useful thing.
The one I wrote in Provincetown came from an exercise in which we were to write about emotional pain using the language of physical pain. I wrote about grief & about the time I had a corneal abrasion, which was pretty much the most exquisitely painful thing I've ever experienced (I'd rather break a bone or go through major surgery again). You can't keep your eye open because the light hurts too much. You can't keep your eye closed because the eyelid pressing on the scratched cornea hurts too much. It's this inescapable thing, kind of like the early days of grief. I wrote the poem feeling rather detached about it and actually fairly cheerful, whereas another poem about how difficult it can be to go into stores and try on clothes when you're a fat chick made me feel like throwing up as I was writing it. Go figure.
One reason I held back from writing about my father's death was because, well, you know. "Death of a parent" is on everybody's list of the "oh god not another one of those PLEASE don't send me any more of those" topics . It's really hard to write anything about it that hasn't been said a billion times before. And yet, if part of the work of poetry is to help us (both reader & writer) grapple with the difficult, to understand what it is to be human, grief & loss is inextricably part of that. It might be the biggest part of that. Not to write about it feels dishonest, incomplete. The trick, I guess, is figuring out how to tackle this material so that it's not just catharsis for the poet but also gives the reader a reason to bother with it. There I go again, stating the obvious. But I'm not sure how to be any more specific about it than that.
I don't know that I've managed to be successful with either of my "dead dad poems" (hi LKD) -- I make no claims for them at this point. But I think, I hope, that with these poems I'm starting to move beyond personal catharsis and beyond "oh here let me bestow upon you this wisdom I have gleaned from my own pain" and into the real territory of poetry ... whatever the hell that is.
It only took twelve years to reach this point with this particular material. Sheesh.
What is your own "difficult material"? Is there something you hesitate to tackle in your work, even though it feels important to you? Is there something you're waiting to write about? What are you waiting for? I'd like to know.