The dead poets society
Non-fiction: Deaths of the Poets, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Jonathan Cape, hdbk, 416 pages, €18.49
Keats died at 25, Byron at 36, Plath at 30, Thomas at 39. No wonder other poets fear they're living too long to be great.
On September 12, 1977, an irritable New York taxi driver rang the door of the writer Elizabeth Hardwick's apartment in West 67th Street. He had her ex-husband, Robert Lowell, in the back of the cab and his passenger was insufficiently conscious to pay his fare. Lowell was on his way back from Ireland, where there had been a series of bloody scenes after he'd informed his new wife, Caroline Blackwood, that their marriage was over. Hardwick found that her ex-husband was, in fact, dead, his stiffened arms clasped tightly around a brown-paper package. She took him to the hospital, where they broke his arms and unwrapped the picture, which turned out to be a portrait of the young Blackwood by her own ex-husband, Lucian Freud.
It's as though Lowell confirmed his status as a major poet with the dramatic quality of his death. He wasn't particularly young as dead poets go: at 60, he had outlived Keats by 35 years and Byron by 24. But his death was exciting enough to make his poems more interesting, as if it gave them the ring of authenticity.
"If poets want to get their oats/ The first step is to slit their throats," writes James Fenton. And he's supported by the psychologist James W Pennebaker, who found that being a published poet was "more dangerous than being a deep-sea diver". Why do we expect our poets, like our pop stars, to die dramatically? Why do they so often oblige by doing so? Is poetry the problem that leads to an early death, or is it the attempted cure for the depressive who is already more likely to die young?
The poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts try to answer these questions in this, their second collaborative book, after Edgelands (2011), a study of English wildernesses. Although it's difficult to write collaboratively, they seem to do so easily: it is a thoughtful book, structured as a series of pilgrimages to the places where poets have died.
Guiding the quest seem to be two conflicting sources of anxiety. As poets in their 50s, Farley and Symmons Roberts are worried that they're getting too old to die the untimely death of the truly great. But they're also anxious that their profession is itself a source of danger: for the poet, is every plane or bus journey potentially fatal?
They visit the beach in Normandy where Keith Douglas was killed following the D-Day landings at the age of 24; the kerb in Fire Island where Frank O'Hara was hit by a beach buggy (a vehicle more like a jeep than a pushchair) at the age of 40.
They pay their respects to the Chelsea Hotel, where there's a plaque in honour of Dylan Thomas, "who lived and labored last here at the Chelsea hotel, and from here sailed out to die". Thomas claimed to have drunk 18 whiskies before he was admitted to hospital in November 1953. His widow, Caitlin, believed that he'd been in thrall to the idea of the "consumptive, dying, pale poet", and had done his best to match up.
There's a moving section on Sylvia Plath, whose suicide at the age of 30 remains an archetype of poetic death, all the more poignant because she'd just written the poems that would bring her posthumous fame. "Thief-," Anne Sexton wrote in the elegiac but also envious 'Sylvia's Death': "how did you crawl into,/ crawl down alone/ into the death I wanted so badly and for so long". Sexton killed herself a decade later, wearing her mother's fur coat and clutching an empty vodka glass.
Sexton's poem is somehow chilling. As a depressive, it's understandable that she envied Plath because she, too, was longing for oblivion. But she seems also to have envied her as a poet for this dramatic flourish. Can we blame poetry for Sexton's death, Farley and Symmons Roberts ask. The poet Donald Davie later wrote that "a lyric poet is one who is absolved from all civic responsibilities and all moral restraints on the strict understanding that by enacting his own self-destruction under the spotlights he shall vindicate his public in its resentful acquiescence to the restraints he is absolved from". Was it this responsibility that somehow led Sexton to take her own life?
Farley and Symmons Roberts remain ambivalent when it comes to the question of whether suffering produces great poetry. Before committing suicide, John Berryman wrote that "the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him… I hope to be nearly crucified." If the lyric poet is his own subject, he needs to create his own material. And Berryman agreed with Yeats, who thought that "sex and the dead" were the only subjects that should be compelling to a "studious mind". Following this logic, the tortured, nearly dead author is able to speak with more authority about the most serious of themes. And poems about death by a dead writer are granted a posthumous integrity.
However, Farley and Symmons Roberts do unearth sufficient numbers of counter-examples to enable us to dismiss this as only one, heavily romanticised, view of poetry. For all the suffering poetic geniuses, there are large numbers of suffering poetic failures, who have not found the right form to describe their crises. And there are also long-lived poets. We could think of Wallace Stevens (75) and TS Eliot (76), who both engaged in busy professional careers, or of William Carlos Williams (79) and RS Thomas (87), who pursued the respective vocations of doctor and priest.
Somewhat ghoulishly, Farley and Symmons Roberts visited Thomas shortly before he died, and found that he seemed to speak already with the authority of the dead. Offering them lukewarm tea, "as if he's walked through several centuries to bring it to us," he echoed God's pronouncement: "I create good and I create evil" - suggesting that we need not be surprised by earthly pain. Farley and Symmons Roberts argue convincingly that, for both Williams and Thomas, the experiences of medicine and religion seem to have enabled them to write about suffering that was not necessarily their own.
Where does this leave our authors? At the end of the book, they address the question of what these "holidays on the backs of dead poets" have brought them. These are in part, they suggest, versions of the old pilgrimages: contemplative time away from the world that sheds light on the here and now. This time can feel intimate, providing "if not answers then at least a confirmation".
Together, they seem agreed that they are not going to die in the service of their art. I, for one, enjoyed their company, and was pleased that they should survive their travels and live to write some more poems.
Lara Feigel is the author of The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich (Bloomsbury)