“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.”

An Orgy of Ennui Gives Way to the Roaring’ Twenties Revisited

The publishers of the vocabulary series Wordly Wise seem obsessive in their campaign to promote the word ennui. It appears in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grade workbooks, and I can’t think of any other word that appears in multiple editions.[1] Here are pages 76 and 77 from Book 6, which we used for our 9th grade students.


Note that the words “yokel,” “ennui,” “transient,” and “orgy” appear in the same lesson and how quaint yokel’s definition comes off: a “gullible country fellow” and how orgy’s definition – “wild, abandoned merrymaking” – sidesteps its sexual content altogether. I learned early in my career that having students write sentences using unfamiliar words was a waste of time, for the same reason I discouraged them from consulting thesauruses: they more often than not misuse the word because they don’t know its connotations. (Here’s a great example of thesaurus misuse from an earlier post).

If they are unfamiliar with the words, students tend to come up with sentences like this:

The landscape company sent over some yokels to dig our koi garden.

We had an orgy at the pep rally with lots of loud cheering.

Or let’s see if we can use both words in one sentence.

The yokels had a veritable orgy of tobacco juice ejaculations as they dug a koi pond in our back yard.

Anyway, back to ennui.  Certainly, ennui transcends mere boredom. It’s more like a malaise, a world weariness, an existence where even orgies seem like a drag. When I taught the word, I also taught John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.”

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.   
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,   
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy   
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored   
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no   
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,   
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes   
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.   
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag   
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving            
behind: me, wag.

Now that’s ennui!

Well, having endured a year of a pandemic, we all may be suffering to some degree of ennui, despite Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime, and TikTock. For most people, simple human contact is a need, whether it be at a sold-out concert or merely in the simple act of shaking hands with a just-introduced barroom companion.

But, hey, it’s the 20s, and the end of Covid (our Spanish flu) in sight. With the Trump Administration (not exactly the equivalent of WWI but pretty damn gruesome) over, and with the legalization of cannabis (our Prohibition) sweeping across the land, we just might set the decade a-roarin’.

In fact, my beloved and I are getting a head start by going full tilt Gatsby (while keeping a sharp eye out for roadside yokels) as we celebrate what we hope to be a new era of love and prosperity).

Happy New Year!


[1] In my 34-year career at Porter-Gaud School, I taught 7th, 8th, 8th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, including AP Literature and Composition, so I’m very familiar with the Wordly Wise series. 

Written the Day after I Promised Someone She’d Never Catch Me Whining

the poet wearing shades indoors

 

The doomed young envy the old, the doomed old the dead young

                                   John Berryman “Dream Song 190”

 

The wind, is moaning like John Berryman on a bad day,

and my sunglasses have sneaked away somewhere.

There’s no sun to block, but they would be handy

to hide my eyes at the Piggly Wiggly where I’m headed.

 

“Blind men and [racial epithet plurals] are the only ones

who wear dark glasses indoors,” a stranger once said

to hatless redheaded me inside a mall where I be sporting Ray Bans.

 

I’ve upscaled in my prosperous baldheaded old age to Costas,

but the stranger should have added “mourners,”

or better yet, minded his own fucking business that day.

 

John Berryman

 

The Sky Flashes, the Great Sea Yearns

 

I can remember as a boy lying on a pile of leaves I had raked the day before, bored, staring up at the clouds. For whatever reason, years later, I recalled this incident (if you can call it that) and told my mother, “Some of my best memories are of being bored.” For whatever reason, this nonsense delighted her, and over the decades she would sometimes remind me that I had uttered those syllables, as if they embodied some great truth about the human condition.

Balderdash. Poppycock.

Truth be told, my best memories do not include that time our broken-down train sat motionless for four hours somewhere between Edinburg and Inverness nor those hours spent sitting through seemingly interminable high school productions nor glancing up every three minutes at the slow clock ticking in Mrs. Waltrip’s Algebra class (even if she did occasionally enliven things by pointing at integers on the chalk board with her middle finger).

Of course, there’s a distinction to be made between mere boredom (languishing in a waiting room) and ennui, which might be best embodied by John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 14.”

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

Ennui is malaise, enduring, beyond the cure of looking up the etymology of “balderdash” (originally a weird mixture of liquids like beer, milk, Nu-Grape soda, etc.) or “poppycock” [which comes from the Dutch pap (soft) and kak (dung), so poppycock = soft-poop].

No for ennui, we need something stronger, maybe a serotonin enhancer, a love affair with Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, something more substantial than watching PW Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Diary of a Lost Girl (my morning’s entertainment).

The fact is I wasn’t really bored when I was lying in that pile of leaves looking at the clouds. I was using my imagination. I was happy.

 

 

Overcoming Writer’s Block/ Avoiding Suicide

painting by Rigney
painting by Rigney

There’s nothing worse than writer’s block. Okay, maybe famine, genocide, or a Mensa mixer is worse.

Ever been to a Mensa mixer?

Imagine it.  The space — a Quality Inn banquet room? Something more upscale? A Hyatt?

Tables, carpet patterns, windows, drapery, caterers.

Characters? Base them on people you know. One of your old high school teachers, an aging history droner with badly dyed hair (you choose the color).

Mix and unmatch outfits.

Add a recent widow with helmet-like hair and a nasal Midwestern accent, a brayer when amused.

You, the protagonist, a lonely man or woman who has joined out of desperation. There’s someone there you sort of dig, maybe.  Make him or her up yourself. Have your would-be love interest constantly checking a Tinder feed.

Or not.

It’s all up to you because I’m not going to write that short story. Writing fiction is too damned demanding.

Crucial Tip #1: One of the most effective ways to overcome writer’s block is to give up writing.

1378995960411.cached

* * *

If you’re a poet and stuck, you can always come up with an image and start from there, whether it’s a memory from childhood, your alcoholic father snoring on a sofa at four PM on a Saturday, his hairy over-abundant stomach exposed beneath a too-small wifebeater, the stomach inflating and deflating while a college football game blares from the TV.

Or a tropically bright painted bunting with nervous eyes doing reconnaissance. He darts out of a thicket as he cops drops trickling from the so-called waterfall in an aquatic garden in your back yard. He flits back, disappearing into shadows.

Cf. Wordsworth and Dickinson.

water garden

Coming up with ideas for poems isn’t that taxing, but writing a good poem is almost impossible, and there’s absolutely no money in it.  Plus poets tend to commit suicide with such abnormally high rates that actuaries prefer to insure wingsuit fliers over sonneteers.

Crucial Tip # 2: One of the most effective ways to overcome writer’s block is to give up writing poetry. (It just very well could save your life).

Dead Suicide Poets Society
Dead Suicide Poets Society

* * *

Therefore, if you’re one of these self-indulgent people who must write, I suggest non-fiction, and it would seem there’s so much to write about – the homeless, McMansions, the state of the spray-on tan industry, the Death of God/the Republican Party, the history of Mensa/the fallibility inherent in IQ testing, sleep apnea, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the evolution of intimate apparel, the problem of writing block and how to overcome it.