Sappho says that to die is evil: so the gods judge. For they do not die.
This will be brief in scope and concise perhaps only at sentence level. I write in the spirit of exposing some of my thoughts surrounding my latest read: Eileen Simpson’s memoir, Poets in Their Youth.
The book often had me thinking of the maxim used by Eleanor Roosevelt: Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, and great minds discuss ideas. My judgement is that, while Simpson had a keen and sympathetic take on the group of midcentury poets she discusses, she had no great mind for poetry itself, and I found this disappointing.
The book, rather than illuminating the ideas in bodies of works by some of the most renowned names in poetry (Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman), instead chronicles the demise of each and every one of these poets, event by event. I must remind myself that this is memoir. This is not biography, not poetic treatise. Simpson promised not to elucidate ideas, but memories.
Simpson’s main character, her late and former husband, John Berryman, brought his life to an end by jumping from the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota into the January Mississippi. He was fifty seven.
I have never read John Berryman’s poetry, other than select lines cited by Simpson, and it is likely I will never seek it out. As closed-minded as it may be, I say this due to Berryman’s suicide. I have had a turbulent enough time plumbing works by other suicidal writers, including my favorite female novelist, Virginia Woolf.
I am tired, quite frankly, of the writers’ tragic stereotype, centered around these influential figures. Writers—speak these exemplary lives—are mercurial, are self absorbed, impossible to merrily wed, loners by nature (Simpson actually dispels this feature of the stereotype, refreshingly so, as she invites the reader into the milieu of Berryman’s socially active coterie), melancholic, always battling an existential crisis or another, financially destitute, blocked by demons, indulgent and self destructive, to give a start. What a lovely bunch of coconuts, we writers. And, as supportive as I am of biographical criticism, I am ill-served by this particular strain, this tragic biographic detail and its cumbersome piggybacking on the works themselves.
As my friend Chad pointed out in conversation the other night, biography can be helpful in augmenting an artist’s body of work, but not necessarily vice versa. In other words, biography may give insight to the work, but the work may not point to the life. From this optimistic viewpoint, which I like, a work can be enjoyed in a vacuum. And if we are to reconcile the work to the worker’s life, perhaps we better discover the former before the latter, giving it an opportunity, however temporary, to be untainted by the messy, bona fide human life behind it.
My sincere wish, though, is that this tainting upon reconciliation was not so prevalent. I am grateful for the biography of the poet who navigated a natural life span, because I believe that poetry is for triumph, in the same sense that life itself is triumph. And poetry, we must remember, is only ever written by the living hand.
We must rely on poetry to guide us with its unflinching eyes into darkness and back out again into light, featuring victorious in both realms. Poetry must boldly and bravely encounter life, including life’s active decay. Poetry must render solar on its dying day, and the living man must stand behind his poems lest he thwart his immortal endeavors by leaping at will to his premature death. I do not make light of suicide. I make the absolute heaviness of it. We must count on our artists, our best and bravest, to show that light is dark’s complement, that life is death’s stipulation, that art is order by chaos’s material.
Suicide deserves an understanding quite outside of poetry, and poetry deserves an understanding quite apart from suicide, for they are not likenesses, and I, a navigator of life, am not wont to be lead by a self-severed man’s words. He has naught to teach me; he has no ultimate offer. My goal is life, no matter how privy to death. To commit suicide is to nullify one’s faith in poetry, to kill one’s gifted hand.
In poetry nothing is spared. Both life and death are found there, as they should be. And, weaving like tendrils through trellis we learn we can grow to see both sides and stand still, and still stand, by dark and by day. Poetry is forever the pergola, and poets the wild undying vine.