Thursday, August 6, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 1: Types of Lamentation

This series of blogs deals with praise and lament, two modes of writing that make up a large portion of literature. I’m going to focus on poetry in these blogs, but in a sense, many works of prose, both fiction and nonfiction, are also praises or laments. For example, all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past could be considered a lament. Proust’s thousand-page novel laments the impossibility of holding onto the past—and holding onto love.

Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book on the effects of pesticides on the environment, Silent Spring, could also be seen as a lament. What is Carson lamenting in her milestone book? I would say she’s lamenting the absence of a world in which humankind lives in harmony with the natural world. 

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is a lament for the moral destruction of an entire country, or an entire generation, or for the hope of a better world that the Russian Revolution represented at a certain point in history.

On the praise side, Jack Kerouac’s novels On the Road and Dharma Bums could be seen as hymns to the lifestyle and values and tastes of the Beat Generation. Terry Ryan’s memoir, The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, a book about how her mother overcame countless obstacles to provide sustenance and excitement for her family, is also a hymn of praise.

I think it’s easier to talk about praise and lament through poetry, though, in part because a poem presents a microcosm that’s easier to study than an entire work. And partly because I know more about poetry.

I’d like to begin by talking about lament. What sorts of things would a person want to lament in a piece of writing? Well, to name a few: death, loss of faith, losing a lover, losing a loved one or friend or acquaintance, tragedy, war, injustice. What is the common denominator among all these subjects? I’d say it’s loss: the sense that something that should be present in one person’s life, or in many people’s lives, or is no longer present, or has never been present.

There are many forms of writing or speech or song that traditionally are laments. Among them are elegies, eulogies, sermons, sonnets, ghazals, or the blues.


In the next installment, I’ll discuss a common form of lament, the song of the spurned lover.

Praise and Lament, Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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