“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.”

A Pat Conroy Family Reunion of Sorts

An acquaintance, the poet Cathy Smith Bowers, once told me something that should be obvious but had never occurred to me: The adrenal glands of children who grow up in chaotic households pump Vesuvian eruptions of the hormone epinephrine when their parents (or their parents’ boyfriends/girlfriends) hurl invectives and/or furniture at each other.

In plainer English, growing up in fucked-up households tends to fuck you up, not only mentally, but physically as well — as if there is a difference anyway.

Cathy Smith Bowers

Cathy Smith Bowers

Cathy went on to say that once these children leave the war zones of their childhoods, they often develop a need for high levels of adrenaline and a hankering for jangled nerves, for that elevated heart rate, that feeling of excitement, and, of course, there’s nothing like a little snort of cocaine to replicate that bodily high, and nothing like a drug habit to create chaos, and thus, to bring the family melodrama back full circle.

Cathy, like many of us, is no stranger to the toll of growing up in an unhappy home. Here’s her poem “The Boxers” that makes manifest her point:

When my father, after twenty years, came home

to die, circling, circling, like an animal

we believed extinct, it was my crazy aunt

who took him in, who told later

how the taxi had dumped him

bleached and whimpering on her porch.

And she who had not lived with him

thought his sons and daughters cruel

not to come when he began to call our names.

He died, and soon after, a package in brown wrapping

arrived at my address. My sister, who did not

attend the funeral, kept urging me to open it

and I kept saying I would, soon. Every day

when I came home from work, there it was

sitting at my back door, the remnants

of my father’s life—years in the mill

spinning and doffing, then drinking into morning

as he railed at the walls, the cotton

still clinging to his fists. Weeks had passed

when finally my sister and I, after two stiff bourbons,

began to rip the paper, slowly in strips

like archaeologists unclothing a mummy.

And all that was there were a few plaid flannels,

the jacket to a leisure suit, and a pair of boxers,

white and baggy, Rorschached in urine—a smaller size,

my sister said, than the way she remembered him.

Then she offered to drop the things at the Salvation Army

store she passed on her way home. In July

we went shopping for swim suits and I could

see her in the curtained stall across from mine.

She was pulling her slip over her head when I saw

she was wearing them, her thighs like the pale stems

of mushrooms emerging from the boxers’ billowy

legs, whiter, softer now, washed clean. I still

can’t say why my sister, that day in the Salvation

Army store, glanced up, as I’ve imagined,

to see if anyone was watching

before she slipped those boxers from the soiled heap

of our father’s clothes. Nor why

I took so long to open that package, both wanting

and fearing whatever lay inside. Like a child

huddled by the campfire who cries out in terror

at the story someone just told

and, still weeping, begs for it again.

“The Boxers” by Cathy Smith Bowers, from The Love that Ended Yesterday in Texas. © Texas Tech University Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

* * *

When we look to literature for examples of dysfunctional American families, we immediately think of Faulkner’s Compsons, any number of Tennessee Williams’ people, the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night, and the tortured families who inhabit the pages of Pat Conroy’s novels.

Our friend Megan Conroy sometimes stays with us for a few days in July when she travels from California to visit her famous father, stepmother, and aunts and uncles at Fripp Island. Unfortunately, this year she couldn’t make it up to Charleston, so she invited us down to Fripp to her father’s beach house.

back yard

back yard

Situated on a lagoon, the Conroy beach house is the antithesis of gothic — open and airy and looking out onto a backyard where practically tame deer feed. When we arrived, Megan greeted us and introduced her uncle Mike, who bears a remarkable resemblance to his older brother and who can give him a run for his money as a raconteur. Also there were Mike’s wife Jeannie, his sister Kathy, Megan’s sisters Jessica and Melissa, their husbands, and a host of grandchildren too numerous to name.

Pat and his wife the novelist Cassandra King arrived after a midday dinner of fired chicken, macaroni and cheese, red rice, cantaloupe, and coleslaw. The older folk traded stories in typical Southern fashion in the open family room while younger members of the clan watched Germany battle Algeria in another space.

Rather than what you might expect, hanging out with Pat Conroy on that day was more like hanging out with Sam Clemens than Eugene O’Neill.

A few excerpts:

Pat: [My arch-conservative ex-father-in-law] makes Rush Limbaugh look like Chairman Mao.

Megan: I didn’t want a fancy wedding dress until I tried one on.   I didn’t want a veil until I tried one on. When they told me don’t you want to take off your veil after the ceremony, I said, “No, when do you ever get to wear a veil?”

Pat: That dress cost a million dollars. Cassandra, remember when you opened the closet door and found it standing up by itself? Horrifying!


In other words, the Conroys seemed like one big happy family and that at least the youngest have broken the dysfunctional cycle of self-generated misery that dysfunction tends to generate, which is remarkable given the scorched earth of the Great Santini’s children’s childhoods. To wit an excerpt from Pat’s memoir The Death of Santini:

When I was thirty years old, my novel The Great Santini was published, and there were many things in that book I was afraid to write or feared that no one would believe. But this year I turned sixty-five, the official starting date of old age and the beginning count down to my inevitable death. I’ve come to realize that I still carry the bruised freight of that childhood every day. I can’t run away, hide, or pretend it never happened. I wear it on my back like the carapace of a tortoise, except my shell burdens and does not protect. It weighs me down and fills me with dread.

The Conroy children were all casualties of war, conscripts in a battle we didn’t sign up for on the bloodied envelope of our birth certificates. I grew up to become the family evangelist; Michael, the vessel of anxiety; Kathy, who missed her childhood by going to sleep at six every night; Jim, who is called the dark one; Tim, the sweetest one – and can barely stand to be around any of us; and Tom, our lost and never-to-be found brother. My personal tragedy lies with my sister, Carol Ann, the poet I grew up with and adored…

I’ve got to try and make sense of it one last time, a final circling of the block, a reckoning, another dive into the caves of the coral reef where the morays wait in ambush, one more night flight into the immortal darkness to study that house of pain one final time. Then I’ll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I’ll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I’ll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time.

Yet they appeared to me one big happy family!

Pat Conroy and his daughters

Pat Conroy and his daughters, from left to right Melissa, Megan, and Jessica

from left to right Pat's feet, his sister Kathy, wife Cassandra, brother Mike and sister-i-law Jeannie

from left to right Pat’s feet, his sister Kathy, Cassandra King, brother Mike and sister-in-law Jeannie