“The Most Fatiguing of Occupations”*

*from “Baudelaire” by Delmore Schwartz

I’m rereading Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, a roman a clef fictionalizing Bellow’s relationship with bipolar poet Delmore Schwartz, pictured below, looking as if a couple of bong hits of sativa might do him some good, you know, take the edge off.

Delmore Schwartz

I copped the photo from the text of The Modern Poets, an undergraduate poetry anthology from my sophomore year at the University of South Carolina.[1] My professor, Thomas L. Johnson, was an excellent teacher and poet, a gentle, patient man whose love for verse was as pervasive as the cigarette smoke that wafted through college classrooms back in 1972.[2]  Before then, I knew next to nothing about contemporary poetry because we didn’t cover much of it in high school. I remember reading The Spoon River Anthology (which was published in 1915), a few of the typically anthologized Frost poems, a page or two of E.E. Cummings, some Edna St. Vincent Millay, and a smattering of Yeats. 

No Beats, no William Carlos Williams, no Wallace Stevens.

As the contemporary poetry course progressed, it occurred to me that mid-century to late-century poets suffered higher rates of suicide per capita than any other occupation outside of the Kamikaze corps. Every other poet we studied either drank himself to death or ended her own life. This impression, of course, might have been an aberration based on a disproportionate sampling of neurotics[3] covered in the survey. For example, if Seamus Heaney and John Ciardi had been substituted for John Berryman and Theodore Roethke, my impression might have been different.

In the table of contents, I placed a check next to the poets we covered.  Here’s a partial list:

John Berryman – jumped from a bridge into the icy Mississippi River the year before I began the course.

James Dickey – drank prodigiously throughout his life, which led to erratic behavior. (Click here for an account of my semester with Dickey).

Randall Jarrell – struck by a car after being treated for mental illness after a suicide attempt.[4]

Robert Lowell – spent decades checking in and out of mental hospitals.

Sylvia Plath – committed suicide at thirty-one after a life fraught with mental breakdowns.

Theodore Roethke – victimized by two nervous breakdowns, one in the 1930s and another in 1944, “and they became increasingly more frequent in the ensuing decade; by 1958, he was attending therapy sessions six times a week.” (Poetry Foundation).

Delmore Schwartz – suffered from mental illness, alcoholism, died in a flophouse where his body wasn’t discovered for three days.

Anne Sexton – committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Dylan Thomas – died of alcoholic poisoning at the Chelsea Hotel in 1953.

Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern in NYC

I’m sure there must be studies galore that attempt to explain this phenomenon. I’ve read a memoir by one of Berryman’s wives, Eileen Simpson, which documented Berryman’s relationships with Schwartz, Lowell, and Jarrell, so maybe there was a bit of birds-of-a-feather going on. Anyway, my first exposure to contemporary poetry convinced me that versifying was hazardous to your health.

Again, perhaps I shouldn’t generalize. Several of the poets we studied seemed mentally healthy, even happy. For example, here’s a poem by one of the sanest writers I’ve ever read, Richard Wilbur, composed shortly after he ran across Delmore Schwartz’s obituary, which Wilbur considered too cursory.

To an American Poet, Just Dead

In the Boston Sunday Herald just three lines
Of no-point type for you who used to sing
The praises of imaginary wines,
And died, or so I’m told, of the real thing.

Also gone, but a lot less forgotten
Are an eminent cut-rate druggist, a lover of Giving,
A lender, and various brokers: gone from this rotten
Taxable world to a higher standard of living.

It is out in the comfy suburbs I read you are dead,
And the soupy summer is settling, full of the yawns
Of Sunday fathers loitering late in bed,
And the sshhh of sprays on all the little lawns.

Will the sprays weep wide for you their chaplet tears?
For you will the deep-freeze units melt and mourn?
For you will Studebakers shred their gears
And sound from each garage a muted horn?

They won’t. In summer sunk and stupefied
The suburbs deepen in their sleep of death.
And though they sleep the sounder since you died
It’s just as well that now you save your breath.

At any rate, when I taught at Porter-Gaud, through its visiting writing program, I met, dined, and drank with several highly successful poets who seemed, not only not unhappy, but also not all that eccentric – Peter Meinke, Starkey Flythe, Jr., Billy Collins, Chris Forhan, Elizabeth Spires, Cathy Smith Bowers, James Longenbach, Jennifer Grotz, and Alan Shapiro – to name nine.

From left to right, Aaron Lehman, Wesley Moore, Pulitzer Poetry finalist Alan Shapiro, Childs Smith

Then again, I attended a Robert Lowell reading in 1974, and he seemed perfectly equanimous, though of course, we didn’t go out for drinks afterward. 

At any rate, I’m enjoying hanging out with Delmore Schwartz’s fictionalized counterpart Von Humboldt Fleisher. In his case, it’s a pleasure crawling in bed with a tortured genius, especially with one so learned. If manic-depression is occurring on a page rather than in three-dimensions, it can be a gas.


[1] The course was actually called Contemporary Poetry, which would be a better title for an anthology that spans from Frost and Pound to James Tate. After all, strictly speaking, Shakespeare is a “modern” as opposed to “ancient” poet. Most of the poets in the anthology were born in the Thirties. Virtually all, if not all, are now dead.

[2] I received a generous B for my slapdash efforts and a C on the original poems I submitted in lieu of a research paper, crap I dashed off in three or four days. In 1987, Mr. Johnson and I ended up in an anthology of James Dickey’s former students’ poems, and I bumped into him at a get together celebrating the publication of the book. We both recognized each other and had an amiable chat.

[3] I miss this now dated adjective.

[4] In a letter to Elizabeth Bishop about a week after Jarrell’s death, Robert Lowell wrote, “There’s a small chance [that Jarrell’s death] was an accident. . . [but] I think it was suicide, and so does everyone else, who knew him well.”

I’ve Found the Perfect Writer to Read at Donald’s Inauguration

book-cover

 

Years ago, when he was visiting writer at my school, the poet Billy Collins told me that he didn’t know of one poet who would be willing to write an inaugural poem for George W Bush.[1]

After last Monday’s debate and the subsequent toxic spew of defamatory tweets, I doubt if we’ll have to consider the possibility of an American poet composing a poem to honor Donald J Trump.

Politics aside, it’s no doubt for the best: orange is probably the hardest word to rhyme in English.

I did some googling, though, and found on Amazon The Conservative Poets: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by William Baer, who offers this estimation of the contemporary literary landscape:

Although it often seems that liberals and the radical Left have assumed complete hegemony over the arts, especially the literary arts, there exists a remnant of very talented American poets who create beautiful, serious, witty, moving, and diverse poetry from a conservative point of view. This unique anthology illustrates the wide range of these determined and sometimes defiant artists, who hope that their work will encourage more like-minded Americans to learn the poetic craft and pursue the literary endeavor.

Here’s a snapshot[2] of portion of the table of contents:

table-of-contents

 

I tried to track down some of these poets, only to discover the ones I deemed most suitable to be nominated as Trump’s inaugural poet had, to quote Richard Wilbur, “gone from this rotten/Taxable world to a standard of higher living.” The late Marion Montgomery’s “While Waiting: Lines for a Lady Suffragette, Standing on a Bus” certainly seems to adhere in some ways to Trump’s view of what Montgomery might call the “fair sex.”

Ah, Lady. Ah. It is a stirring sight.

Franchisement by the gods is now complete.

You now have won the inalienable right

Of standing on your own two feet.

Alas, Montgomery checked out of this Motel 6 of Sorrow in the penultimate year of W’s second term.

Editor Baer in his preface admits that most of the anthologized poems’ conservatism lie in their traditional forms rather than politics, but adds, “Some, myself included, would even tend to see meter as a poetic representation of the provident order of God’s universe.”[3]

What led me to these ruminations is the discovery of a web site entitled Scholars and Writers for America. Beneath its banner there is a statement of support: “Given our choices in the presidential election, we believe that Donald J. Trump is the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America, and we urge you to support him as we do.”

Scrolling down my screen looking for a poets or novelists, past names like Burton W Folsom, Jr., author of The Myth of the Robber Barons and Steve Mosher of the Population Research Institute, I discovered, to my delight, at the bottom of the screen, Thomas C McCollum, novelist.

Here’s the second paragraph of text from McCollum’s website, from an article by Louise Cook, the editor of Absolute Marbella Magazine:

If one were to view all aspects of Thomas McCollum’s professional and avocational life, one might be very tempted to call him a Renaissance man–albeit with a strong entrepreneurial bent. Wisely McCollum leaves all such pretentions to others, preferring the doing rather than the talking about.

What follows is a most-interesting-man-in-the-world litany: Can-am racing, bull running in Pamplona [Spain she helpfully adds], man-eating crocodile hunting, a golf-addiction, insurance sales, original pen and ink drawings street-corner sales, med-school matriculation, med-school abandonment, medical laboratory founding, medical laboratory selling, retirement to Marbella, Spain, “to live out all the fantasies of his youth. He has camped, safaried, and traveled to every continent on earth.”

McCollum has published four novels: Whipsocket, Tainted Blood, Palmer Lake, and Uncle Norm.

Here are the first and last sentences from Publisher Weekly’s review of Tainted Blood.

Readers willing to suspend disbelief beyond belief may find McCollum’s first novel an interesting medical thriller; others will be dismayed by characters manipulated by incredible plot contrivances.

McCollum makes the medical details microscopically authentic, but too many standard diatribes against government agencies, characters who speak polemic as often as they do dialogue and a conclusion that’s painfully anticlimactic render a hot topic tepid.

Now compare that MSM review to this one for Uncle Norm from Christopher Feigum, Grammy Award winner and Metropolitan Opera Singer:

“Thomas McCollum has delivered a book of operatic proportions…a tale full of intrigue that tempts us to explore the what ifs of life and the possibility of encountering one profound love. Whether he is delighting pygmies with donuts or sharing his smuggled discoveries along the way, Uncle Norm is a warm, comical hero deeply connected to his fellow lost soul in the Congo, Ottobah Cuguano, and their shared faith in everlasting friendship. As they strive to break down racial barriers and transform the world, their adventures amaze the restless traveler in all of us. This timely piece is a declaration that we each have the choice to leave behind a better place than we found.”

Oh, yeah.  There is also this snippet from of all places, Publisher’s Weekly:  “an interesting thriller…McCollum makes the adventure microscopically authentic.”   Hmmm.  “an interesting thriller . . . microscopically authentic.”  Where I have I heard that before?

soon coming to an opera house near you

Anyway,  I have an idea for the Trump Inaugural Committee in the unlikely event that some less cationic-inducing alternative to Thorazine can be combined with some attention-disorder drug to subdue Trump’s pudgy demons and at the same time focus his attention so he can prep for the second two debates.

Here’s my idea. Instead of having an inaugural poem, have Mr. McCollum write an adventure tale with Trump as protagonist.

No one likes poetry anyway.

donald-solo-with-croc

 


[1] By the way, this conversation took place in Folly Beach, SC, at the Sand Dollar Social Club, one of the most exclusive biker bars/literary salons in the Lowcountry of South Carolina

[2] Is snapshot ever used non-metaphorically anymore? Does any one say, “Wait a sec. I have a snapshot on my phone. Actually I ended up using a screenshot to avoid the moiré-like swirls from the iPhone 7 photo.  Are you noticing the propensity of the author to name drop?

[3] For example, poetically rendering the series of explosions that occurred after that asteroid or comet or whatever slammed into the planet and did away with the dinosaurs would call for a series of spondees: Splat! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!