Verse case scenarios
Is there something inherently tragic about poets? Gerald Isaaman goes in search
31 March, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas
DEAD poets hit the headlines more often than when they’re alive. No doubt that is because they are prone to the pressures of heartbreaking romances, alcoholic binges, manic depression and, sadly, the so-called escape of splendid suicide.
John Keats, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath are a local trio who have become martyrs seduced by fate whose lives ended disastrously early and amid personal misery.
If you have stood in that tiny room on the Spanish Steps in Rome, where Keats died from TB in 1821, aged just 25, pining for his lost love Fanny Brawne back in Hampstead, then you easily succumb to tears at such emotional anguish.
You can feel likewise in considering how Thomas, one-time Fitzrovia resident, died in New York in 1953, aged 39, having drunk 18 straight whiskies.
And you can easily stand outside No 21 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, where the American poet Sylvia Plath desperately gassed herself in 1963, aged 30.
“Being a published poet is more dangerous than being a deep-sea diver,” the academic journal Death Studies announced in a report some years ago. It had examined writers of all genres before deciding that poets died always youngest.
Yet according to two award-winning modern poets, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, who have travelled across Britain, Europe and America tracing the demise of past poets, early death has fatally skewed the image of poets in our culture.
They have been rewarded by producing a whole book, The Deaths of the Poets, in which they interrogate the myth that poets need to be doomed and self-destructive.
En route they came up with stories they claim that are not only enlightening and provocative but powerfully moving and remarkably eye-watering funny too.
“There is nothing deader than a dead poet,” they announce in their introduction. But poets obviously remain good copy, especially the generation of 20th century American poets who “wrote directly, nakedly about their own lives, and were dubbed ‘confessional poets’ as a result.”
Was there a glamour to this litany of despair?
“Of course there was,” they respond and point out there was some rock star glory to furiously spent lives, but it was more than just bohemian glamour.
“There was something in those extreme lives that seemed to authenticate the work… The implication we drew was that in order to access the real poems, the truest, deepest soundings, the poet must put everything at risk – health, family, security and ultimately life itself. Everything.”
I have mentioned but three of the locally associated poets whose lives have been partially dissected – they also include Ted Hughes, so intimately connected to Sylvia Plath, Louis MacNeice, TS Eliot, WB Yeats, John Betjeman, Isaac Rosenberg and Andrew Motion.
The authors’ research is extensive. But, maybe inevitably, it is a fruitless journey because the two interrogators end up disagreeing with each other. Perhaps that is because they equally ignore a host of local poets – we always attract the talent – among them Leigh Hunt, Tagore, DH Lawrence, William Empson, Geoffrey Grigson, William Allingham, Dame Edith Sitwell and Dannie Abse because their lives do not fit their insistence that agony always prevails in poets’ lives or that of painters, composers, playwright and musicians.
“If we are honest, this is where our own ‘we’ splits,” they conclude. “At the end of this odyssey, one of us would say the myth of the doomed poet is simply that – a myth we need to debunk – while the other thinks there’s an unquiet spirit in many poems that means the myth still holds.”
I much prefer the quotation: “Poetry talks to us all – but you have to be listening, open-hearted, willing to hear, appreciative and, hopefully, inspired by the sadness and joy.”
• Deaths of the Poets. By Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Jonathan Cape, £14.99