When you reach “a certain age,” time begins to accelerate, and you become acutely aware that there’s much less time ahead than behind. And when your older friends start dying, the closer you were to them, the more their deaths seem impossible, a mistake, some stupid oversight—a fatal lapse of attention that resulted in their slipping overboard when no one was looking.
Homilies and pieties are always offensive when what moved you in a friend was some quirk of speech or character, some physical gesture that becomes expected and welcome, especially in the little rituals of saying goodbye: Mark Strand would always see you to the door and give you a hug. Seamus Heaney would watch you get into a cab and wait on the corner, waving at you until you were out of sight, before turning back toward home. C. K. Williams, when he lived in Paris, always hovered in the doorway in silence for a moment, just to make sure you knew the way to the elevator. And Phil Levine would always be joking as you started down the stairs, the exchange of wit never ceasing until the door closed.
We weren’t ready to say goodbye to them, and we still aren’t now.
We dedicate this issue of Ploughshares to the memory of Mark Strand, Phil Levine, C. K. Williams, and Seamus Heaney. The variety of style, rhetoric, and form embodied by their work, the sense of poetry as simultaneous reckoning with life and language, innovation and tradition, and their paradoxical commitment to imagination as providing both engagement with and refuge from a troubled world—these were the qualities we looked for in the poems we collected. And to make this collection as diverse as possible in its ambitions and achievements, we limited each poet to a single poem. This is our lament for the makers. And of course, what we mean by lament is praise of the highest kind, an affirmation of enduring value.
For the readers who loved their words, for their families and friends, which include many of the poets represented here, we wanted to bring them back—if only in these pages.