Review: ‘Deaths of the Poets’

Deaths of the Poets opens with a Scriptural verse, placing us at the moment of Christ’s Resurrection. “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5), the angel asks at a point when the membrane between life and death is at its thinnest. This quotation sets the tone for the book, in which two contemporary poets, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, take us through Europe and America to sites associated with famous dead poets such as Dante, John Berryman, and Philip Larkin. The impetus of their journey seems founded on two primary questions: why is society fascinated with the tragic poète maudit? And what is the cost of creating great poetry?

Exploring the image of the poet-hero, the authors reveal a subterraneous world of poet collectors, and the pilgrims who ensure that dead poets receive an afterlife. In a Bonhams auction, poets can be found in a sale catalogue: collectable poets. University archives and collectors are eager to purchase memorabilia such as photographs and even emails belonging to a poet as a wager for their future canonicity. Increasingly, this unsparing process of collecting private papers, notebooks, train tickets, even shopping lists, starts long before the death of a poet. In effect, collectors hallow poets before their actual death, by archiving their belongings, as though the poet could be reconstructed with the disjecta membra of their life. Among the miscellany of poets currently in preserve are shavings of Byron’s skin in Ravenna’s Classense Library and a dinner menu for Robert Frost’s birthday (1954) at Amherst College, indulging our imagination with the knowledge that he probably ate ‘Rose Radishes’ and ‘Clear Green Turtle Soup’.

The book makes us question what the job or value of a poet actually is to earn this level of adulation. Perhaps the French director Jean-Pierre Melville described it accurately when asked about his greatest ambition, “To become immortal, and then die”. Whilst we might think of the immortality of mythical protagonists such Gilgamesh or Achilles, in some ways a poet’s work is to create immortality, converting the ephemeral world into immortal verse. By preserving their relics, we also contribute to their immortality, by creating a simulation of the poet’s presence in their absence. The cover art captures this texture of an afterlife that society gives to dead poets. Matthew Thomas manipulates the classic painting by Henry Wallis of Chatterton (1856) by removing the languishing poet altogether. The picture appears like the empty tomb and prefigures a life beyond death. If poets are truly immortalised through both their vocation and the preservation of their legacy, Death of the Poets seems like a sardonic title.

Published this February, Farley and Roberts seem to have anticipated the increased dialogues about mental health that began in March when Prince Harry confessed his own struggle with grief. Most of the famous poets in the book were ravaged by depression, their early deaths galvanised by a cocktail of alcohol, drugs, and Prozac. In a notable 2003 study, James C. Kaufman examined 1,987 deceased writers, and discovered that poets usually died youngest. Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California speculates that poetry may be self-therapy for a poet’s internal problems, but that innate pathologies kill them prematurely, not the poems. However, we also see how obsessions with creating great poetry led some poets to drug abuse in order to chemically control their emotional bandwidth for writing poetry. It would be far-fetched to claim as Don Paterson does that the term ‘poet’ will soon resemble a ‘diagnosis’ than a ‘vocation’, but the book has initiated a valuable conversation for future research: the relationship between poetry and medicine.

Equipped with what seems to be an indestructible satnav, Farley and Roberts maintain our curiosity throughout as they ring on doorbells of former poet residences and find themselves in surreal scenarios. ‘What’s the purpose of your visit?’ Homeland Security asks them. ‘Well. We’ve come to look at the places where some poets died…’ In one incident, their hotel mistakes their identity and they find themselves rolling through Manhattan in a stretch limo looking for the dead Dylan Thomas. Their comedic tone, however, is never at the expense of empathy and perception – a fine balance to orchestrate when dealing with macabre deaths and disappearances. The narrative effectively jump-cuts between a poets’ death and life, like a montage through which we see how death illuminates life, and the way in which poets survive in the world is just as moving as their deaths.

Reasons to criticise the book are clear from the outset: its attempt to cover a wide net of trans-Atlantic poets is highly ambitious and precludes potential in-depth treatment. Coverage is often uneven. For example, Keats and Jack Kerouac deserved more attention, whereas John Berryman and Sylvia Plath seemed sufficiently evaluated. Additionally, the book’s knotting of fact and feeling is an acquired taste. Here, academic research is streaked with subjectivity and the odd daub of hysteria. In Elizabeth Bishop’s former residence they conjure up the image of “the ghost of a great poet padding barefoot across it”, at the risk of alarming the present tenants of the apartment. And there are other such uncanny episodes in the book where fact fizzles with imaginative description and the narrative haphazardly looses its grip on reality. However, I found the book’s unique integration of research and personal insight accomplished, and the critical discussions so engaging that scholarly qualms were easily excused for an earnest encounter with folk hero-poets.

After death, poets and their messages have often climbed onto a beatific podium. Like Keats’s nightingale, even their mortality becomes suspect; “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird”. Thus, what appears to be a book about literary travel seems also to fulfil the role of hagiography. The authority of the poet perhaps comes from their attempt to frame finite experience with immortal width, whether they lived like a hermit as R.S. Thomas did, or spent years chain-smoking like Auden. Death of the Poets raises a glass to the tumultuous house of dead poets, those who tugged between the human and the divine.

Pratibha Rai

‘Deaths of the Poets’ is published by Jonathan Cape, RRP £14.99.

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