Kevin Saving on
Deaths of the Poets
Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts
Jonathan Cape (2017)
Apparently 'there is nothing deader than a dead major poet' (because they) 'cannot add to or subtract from their life's work and legacy' -whilst politicians, poachers and potmen presumably can? Also, 'some poets are so dead that it's hard to believe that they ever lived...' –another, dubious, assertion from our two northern-based poetry professors who single-out (the rather unfortunate) Lord Byron as an example of this, speculative, phenomenon.
Deaths of the Poets is a follow-up to the duo's Edgelands (which I must confess I haven't read). It is a two-handed travelogue around Europe and America, sniffing out the casting-off places for some of literature's more resounding names. It is also a vehicle for the anecdotes and apophthegms of our latter day Virgils -who seek to guide us among the unsleeping and poetic dead.
We visit (in order) Bristol, Rome, New York, Laugharne, Dun Laoghaire -quite why, I'm still not sure- Minneapolis, Primrose Hill, Cambridge, Athens, Missolonghi (Greece), Liverpool, San Francisco, Hull, Boston (Mass.), Buckfast (Devon), Palmers Green, Arromanches, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Birkenhead, New Jersey, Amherst (Mass.), Bournemouth, Hartford (Connecticut), Northampton, Leeds, Vienna, Kirchstetten (Austria) and -phew!!- Ravenna.
On the way we pick up some juicy -if sometimes chilling- titbits (e.g. the 'beach buggy' which hit and fatally-injured the New York School poet Frank O'Hara was in fact a jeep travelling at a speed sufficient to rupture his liver). We're treated to some quite winning self-deprecation: Farley/Roberts are themselves terrorised at one point by a car-driving seven-year-old. Whenever they can't get to the requisite death or burial site, the pair gazes in awe at the relevant oil painting instead.
'The deaths of poets' we are cautioned 'matter because they become a lens through which to look at the poems'. Roberts/Farley are highly exercised by the perception that 'novelists can be stable, savvy, politically adept and in control but poets should be melancholic, doomed and self-destructive'. While they acknowledge and accept that there are many big-name poets for whom this paradigm does not hold true (Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams et al) they tug at the myth that 'great poems only come when a poet's life is pushed right up to an emotional knife-edge of acceptability, safety, security'.
James W. Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas, is quoted: 'being a published poet is (statistically) more dangerous than being a deep sea diver'. James C. Kaufman of California state university opines 'if you ruminate more, you're more likely to be depressed... and poets ruminate. Poets peak young. They write alone.' Hmm... perhaps thesauruses should now routinely be issued with a governmental health warning?
Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) is cited as being the begetter of this enduring fantasia of the 'doomed poet' driven by an excessive lust for self-knowledge towards their tragically early death -but the unmentioned John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), might make for an equally self-destructive prototype -and with a larger body of substantive work to his credit.
Farley/Symmons certainly make some impressive connections, self-consciously vaunting their exalted access to the likes of Dr Carol Jacobi, Curator of the Tate; to Richard Heseltine, current librarian at the Brynmor Jones library, Hull; to Kate Donahue (John Berryman's highly articulate widow); to the British Ambassador John Kittmer's Greek residence and to Paul Horsak, Kirchstettin's burgomaster (and custodian of W.H. Auden's VW Beetle).
As the discerning reader may already have surmised, this curious hybrid of a book (neither scholarly disquisition nor layperson's critical guide) is something of a curate's egg. Twice, within ten pages, Donald Davie is introduced as 'the poet and critic Donald Davie' and then (another page on) he is invoked as 'the poet-critic'.
Somewhat gossipy and lazily written, nor does Deaths of the Poets appear to be especially slavish in its adherence to historical fact. Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gentle' villanelle was written two-and-a-half years before its author's demise -not six as we're told here. David Jones served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers -not the Welsh: if you're going to rehearse this sort of fact, you may as well get it right.
Then there are the missed opportunities: Symmons/Farley chug into Northampton by train and even make it as far as St. Andrew's Hospital where they (rightly) note that John Clare died after many years in residence as a patient. They remark on the 'echoes' between this and Ezra Pound being incarcerated in the (misspelt) 'St Elizabeth's', Washington -but seem unaware that Robert Lowell -upon whom they've already devoted a goodly amount of text in a previous chapter- was also a one-time resident at St. Andrew's, Northampton.
Michael Farley and Robert Symmons write as an 'item' -continuously utilising the plural pronoun 'we' (which, after a while, begins to grate in its assumption of an authorial -and quasi-regal- prerogative). Occasionally this yields amusing ambiguities. On the ferry passage over to Fire Island (scene of O'Hara's accident) our two slightly-daunted travellers 'have exactly the same thought at the same time: we are undercover straights, voyaging out to a gay haven. Should we pretend to be a couple? We must seem convincing enough'. So, at least that's clearer now: or is it... ?
Between these somewhat journalistic efforts Deaths of the Poets can sometimes be quite moving. We're transported to the last resting place of Captain Keith Douglas -a tank man well-at-ease with the wide panoramas of the North African desert war, but painfully ill-prepared for the nightmare of a claustrophobic Normandy bocage that will, all-too-quickly, be the death of him.
Rev R.S. Thomas is memorialised in Aberdaron, West Wales -the nostalgia here modified by the fact that Paul Simon and Charley Farley have met with, and interviewed, this most reclusive and dark-visioned of churchmen. William Carlos Williams displayed a similar sense of extra-vocational 'service' (in the latter's case, medical) which is usually -and lamentably- absent from the modern semi-professional poet (or should that be the professional semi-poet?).
Personally, I've never warmed to Williams' free verse -which manages simultaneously to be both 'portentous' and 'sparse'- but one vignette of the doctor-in-practice, recounted here, proves revealing. 'Bill' Williams, visiting a patient, conducts an impromptu, premature home-birth. Rolling up his sleeves, he tells the mother-to-be, "Look, we're in this together, and we'll learn from each other. Let's you and I help this future citizen of the world join us". After delivering a healthy baby girl, he sings the National Anthem. Marvellous.
Death comes to us all -but it will take us in so many different ways. Hart Crane, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and (probably) Weldon Kees were all suicides. The relatively unknown John Riley (murder), John Keats (consumption), Dylan Thomas (alcoholic excess coupled with medical incompetence), Byron (a 'fever' coupled with medical incompetence) and Thom Gunn (to what basically seems to have been excessive hedonism) are some of the more interesting case histories.
Philip Larkin (and what's he doing here?) died of cancer. (Semi) interesting fact: 'three or four years' after Larkin had left his 'High Windows' Hull flat, Sean O'Brien moved in. Mr Bleaney became Prof. O'Brien.
Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts have isolated a slightly ghoulish topic and brought their eccentric, possibly rather geekish, talents to bear. They worry that Cyril Connolly's famous 'enemies of promise' may have somehow morphed from oppressive domesticity into 'a new and insidious enemy (...) the paralysing and overbearing presence of the dead (and their visitor centres with free parking) in our midst. Has 'the pram in the hall' been replaced by the plaque on the wall?'
Deaths of the Poets, concentrating as it does on some of the end-games played out beneath those mushrooming plaques, cannot be expected to arrest this putative trend. It may even, by its very nature, exacerbate it. Somewhat against my own inclinations, I have come to support this publication's larger thesis, contradicting Alexander Pope at one-and-the-same time: the proper study of mankind is Mortality. Dylan Thomas' 'towering dead' surround us and ultimately they carry, contain and comprise all that can possibly survive of us.
Kevin Saving © 2017