Why do so many poets commit suicide? My daughter’s away at college and planning to be a poet. Needless to say, I’m worried. Can you say anything to discourage this trend?
— R. D.
I once dressed up as Sylvia Plath for a “Dress as Your Favorite Poet” festival. I wore a box painted as an oven over my head. Funny, right? Plath’s dramatic exit from this world has made her the poster child for poets who have committed suicide: John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and more recently, Sarah Hannah — professor at Emerson College, where I received my MFA. Those are only three names swimming in the sea of dead tortured artists — we always use that term, don’t we? We hide the agent by using the passive case, suggesting a flawed psychosis or something else so private that it eludes scholarly discussion. We write the biographies of dead poets like hounds, sniffing out depression, domestic strife, or turbulent love affairs as culprits for suicide. But nearly half the U.S. is depressed, half come from broken homes, and the dating scene is more turbulent than ever — most aren’t killing themselves with the kind of flair we’ve come to expect from a poet.
Consider Hart Crane, a poet contemporary of E. E. Cummings whose most memorable contribution to literature is perhaps The Bridge, a series centering around the Brooklyn Bridge. Rather than staying at home in Cleveland and working in his father’s chocolate business, Crane moved to New York at the age of 17 to live a life of poverty. What money he did make as a copyeditor or assistant among other things, he squandered on booze and extravagant sexual encounters. He was a romantic, and when he won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931, he chose to live and write in Mexico, where he wanted to recover traces of the authentic Indian world before its contact with Europeans and write a tragedy (something he had attempted to do with American Indians and the U.S. in The Bridge). Mexico marks the climax of Crane’s dissolution. After numerous drunken encounters with the Mexican authorities that nearly got him deported, and at least two attempts at suicide, he set sail from Mexico in 1932, only to throw himself overboard en-route to the U.S. He was only 32 when he killed himself. “Only in darkness,” Crane wrote in “To The Brooklyn Bridge,” the proem for the series, “is thy shadow clear.”
More than painting a tragic figure, Crane’s life and death illuminate the challenges of being a writer, especially a young writer, for though many praised Crane — especially those who admired the romantic cadence of Whitman, he faced much criticism. He was a Romantic who wrote in a somewhat elevated diction that he garnered from studying the Elizabethan poets; yet he was writing at a time when T.S. Eliot’s polemics on Modernism were infiltrating the literati. Some critics, including Marianne Moore — editor of the literary magazine The Dial — received his poetry as obscure, and this puzzled Crane. Surely, in his mind, he wasn’t any more obscure than Donne or Dickinson, or Moore herself. Crane received countless rejections, which had a profound effect on him — though I don’t think any more profound than rejection has on all writers.
When we write, so often we delve into the most intimate corners of our lives. But in order to make a living, writers need to put the result on display for consumption, and hence it becomes subject to criticism. Criticism isn’t necessarily bad — it helps others decide if a restaurant or a movie or a book of poetry is worth an investment. The difference between the restaurant or movie and the book, however, lies in where we assign blame. If a movie receives poor criticism, it is the fault of several: the director, the actors, the writers, the editors. But the book’s fault is the author’s alone.
I’m not saying that mood disorders or love affairs don’t take their toll on poets and writers — I’m saying that that’s the easy way out, the easy thing to say, when perhaps it is writing itself that takes the biggest toll. From literary magazine rejections, to negative criticism, to an agent’s non-pursuit, it is hard to be a poet and writer. In the past few years, I’ve been rejected by dozens of literary magazines, lost plenty of money in reading fees to contests I didn’t win, been ignored by countless literary agents, and because a lot of my writing is accessible on the internet, I’ve received several derogatory emails — I’ve been told that I’m ignorant, spineless, and that my mom is “full of shit.” Writers have been told that this is the way the game works, that they need to have thick skin, but I have literally slammed my cheek onto my desk and wept in response to all this. No matter what we write, no matter what praise we receive, we always fall short of the expectations of others — and not to mention our own expectations for ourselves.
The poet does not punch in and out of work. When we’re working, we write. In our free time, we write. We keep journals by our bedsides to catch the lyrics floating in and out of dreams. The writer’s job saturates our existence. It can make us champion swimmers, but it can drown us, too. What led Hart Crane to stumble to the edge of the Orizaba? Alcoholism, failed romance, rejection, or the rocky relationship with his mother? We can only guess. What pushed him over the edge, what made him submit to the ocean current? Maybe it was a man fatigued and crushed by the business of writing.
One day, I opened my email to find a harsh message regarding one of my columns. It really hurt my feelings. It altered my perceptions in such a way that for moments all was bleak and I was utterly powerless against it. I was ruminating on that email and the other difficulties I had been having as a writer while I was changing my baby’s diaper. As if he could tell that my mind was elsewhere, my son peed on me, a long glistening arch that reflected the morning light. It startled me. It brought me back down to Earth. It reminded me that I’m not just a writer. I’m a mother — I’m also a daughter, a sister, a wife, a colleague, and a friend. Such roles offer more frequent and less volatile validation. Such roles — and the joys of fulfilling them — offer solace.
The profession of writing is so all-encompassing that writers often forget that we contribute to the world in other capacities. Being a writer doesn’t necessarily mean making it as a writer, though when do we truly “make it”? Like Dickinson, our popularity could steadily rise a long time after our death. How many volumes do we have to sell? How many professors should include our books in their Poetry 101 curriculum? The hardest thing about being a poet is learning patience, learning to be satisfied with small accomplishments. The hardest thing may be writing itself, having faith that our efforts aren’t futile. So listen up, poets, writers, all you “tortured artists”: Let’s leave the drama to reality TV. Let’s stick around. Someone around here has got to clean up all the piss.
I learned I’m scared from context clues:
the fog on the taxi’s windshield at midnight,
the rain’s slow drip, Egypt’s emphatic khaifa.
The window was open just enough to help me
breathe, ease condensation on the rear-view’s
reflection: chained to the dungeon walls
as a brave fighter’s liver Hend gnawed,
and Baba Kurulos invoked the Son of God.
Other words came from my text and translation
from my Egyptian friends, the word for cop
and tell me, I must and if—furrowed
brow. I’m scared was an easy raise,
the brain pulsing to the same gooey treacle
nuns in grey blessed onto my tongue. I don’t
know many descriptive words, so I say
I’m smart, with the resonance of experience
and a girl’s noiseless life. Person is different
from people, slut mukhtalif men girl
waiting on the curb for a ride, Che Guevera’s face
on the backside of a taxi. I know life the way
one knows that sex feels good. Sex feels good,
right? Egypt’s life is Uzbek’s shadow:
the first syllable’s high-rise descent the same
after reincarnation. I know imagination’s
dirty tricks—those goblins in skull caps, black
slipper soles are trying on my panties. Time,
question, year, lesson.
I learned wet in Uzbekistan, pissing
the bed after that dream again,
hearing the lover’s repulsed cry.
• 3 January 2011