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“Nothing Can Be Done, But Something Can Be Said”

Epitaphs for Four Poets Who Died in January


April may be the cruellest month, June the rarest, and December the bleakest, depending on whether you’ve just been reading poems by Eliot, Lowell, or Poe. But January may be the saddest, considering the notable poets who left this earthly life during the first month of the year. Joseph Brodsky, T.S. Eliot, Hyam Plutzik, and William Butler Yeats all shook off this mortal coil during January, three of them having penned meditative lines that eventually became epitaphs on their tombstones. On a deeper level, all four poets are linked by common references, influences, and similarities of outlook.

January 8, 2012 is the fiftieth anniversary of the untimely death at the age of 50 of Hyam Plutzik, in Rochester, New York, just as his long verse poem “Horatio” became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Plutzik, who had been born in Brooklyn of Jewish immigrants from Belarus, spent the post-World War II years as a professor at the University of Rochester, during which time he authored three collections of poetry. He is buried in Old Montefiore Cemetery in Jamaica, Queens, New York City under a simple shaft bearing his name in English and Hebrew, the image of an open book, and the concluding line from his poem, “Requiem for Edward Carrigh”: “Nothing can be done but something can be said at least.” The poem refers to a man who, like Plutzik, died young, as in the poem’s opening lines:

“The sudden translation to the bottom of the hill,
To be with the dull stones and the sterile earth
After the bitter climbing of forty-four years...”
But the concluding line, which became Plutzik’s epitaph, may also refer to the poet’s anguish over the agonies experienced in the world during his lifetime in the middle of the 20th century. In his 50 years, Plutzik witnessed economic depression, fascism, world war, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust. In this poem he deploys words of remembrance, the most powerful weapon in his arsenal, to bear witness, at least, to events too overwhelming to endure.

A month after Plutzik’s death, Robert Hinman memorialized him at a service in Rochester’s Temple B’rith Kodesh, beginning his remarks with a reference to the poet’s “Because the Red Osier Dogwood.” Comparing Plutzik himself to what he called “winter lightning, vital energy poised in silent flame,” Hinman saw the red osier dogwood as a unique epitaph of its own: an organic affirmation of life “in the naked and forlorn season / When snow is winner...” This poem had been the first in Plutzik’s 1959 collection Apples from Shinar (Compare Prices), republished in 2011 by Wesleyan University Press to commemorate his centennial (he was born July 13, 1911).

T.S. Eliot also died during the first month of the year, on the 4th of January in 1965, and was buried in the parish church of St. Michael in East Coker, Somerset, his ancestral home. The inscription on his grave marker reads “in my beginning is my end... in my end is my beginning,” the opening and closing lines from the second of his Four Quartets, also titled “East Coker.” This concept of cyclical death and rebirth is echoed in Hyam Plutik’s signature poem “Sprig of Lilac”:

“And the living and the past give to one another
There is no door between them. They pass freely
Out of themselves, becoming one another.”
A decade earlier, Plutzik had chided Eliot for his anti-Semitism in the poem “For T.S.E. Only,” inviting the two to “weep together for our exile” even when grief paralyzes their capability to mourn:
“In the time of sweet sighing you wept bitterly,
And now in the time of weeping you cannot weep.”
Once again, as in Plutzik’s epitaph, the poet is charged with witnessing, remembering, and articulating the events and circumstances—personal or communal—that cause us to mourn those who have died, whether a single life or that of six million in the Holocaust.

Joseph Brodsky, who died on January 28, 1996, was himself living in exile, having been expelled from his native Russia in 1972, coming to the United States with the help of poets such as W.H. Auden and others. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1991. Like Eliot, Brodsky was deeply influenced by John Donne and other 17th century metaphysical poets. In 1970, he published his “Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot” modeled after Auden’s 1939 elegy, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Its opening line, “He died in January, the beginning of the year” is an echo of Auden’s line about Yeats: “He disappeared in the dead of winter.”

William Butler Yeats died in France on January 28, 1939, exactly 57 years before Brodsky’s passing, and was initially buried in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Earlier, he had told his wife, “in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo” (the county in Ireland where he spent his childhood). World War II soon intervened, and Yeats’ body was not returned to Drumcliffe, Sligo, until 1948. His epitaph, taken from his late poem “Under Ben Bulben,” reads:

“Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!”
Brodsky so admired Hyam Plutzik’s long poem “Horatio” that he translated sections of it into Russian and produced it on the Moscow stage in the 1980s. This poem can itself perhaps be seen as an extended epitaph, in which Hamlet’s old friend Horatio tries to tell the older man’s “story aright” decades after his passing. Brodsky is buried in San Micele Cemetery in Venice, not far from the grave of Ezra Pound, another exiled poet. There is no epitaph on Brodsky’s tombstone, just his dates and his name in Russian above and English below. This is somewhat ironic, given that Brodsky had famously written a semi-humorous epigram years before his death, addressed to a rival poet:
“Sir, you are tough and I am tough
But who will write whose epitaph?”

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