“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.”

Local Souls

Thirty years ago when I gave fiction a half-assed serious stab, I managed to get selected by Blanche McCrary Boyd to participate in a writing workshop sponsored by the SC Arts Commission. Of the dozen or so participants, more than a few would go on to publish novels or short story collections – Josephine Humphreys, Lee McAden Robinson, William Baldwin, Starkey Flythe, Jr., Harlan Greene, and Stephen Hoffius. When we met each week, Boyd read aloud one of our stories or excerpts (she didn’t provide us copies), and, afterwards, she led us in offering critiques. Harlan Greene and Josephine Humphreys, if I remember correctly, had had novels accepted that had not quite come out yet. When Boyd read aloud from the galleys of Humphreys’s Dreams of Sleep, I suddenly caught a malodorous whiff of my own amateur rankness. Here’s the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

Before they wake, sunlight is on the house, moving on the high east wall and window through old glass as wavy as broken water, onto the hard bright floor of waxed pine. When Alice opens her eyes, she sees its cool path stamped by the window of mullions, squares stretching to rhomboids of clear fall sun. Will sleeps behind her, his breath wisping her back. She loves the quiet of light and its mutable geometry, as those wizards did who chinked and slit their stones to let in messages from sun gods. The message to Alice is, Don’t move. Not till that first stamp of light touches the wide crack in the floorboards. 

Of course, we all heaped – BM Boyd especially – heavy praise on that first chapter; however, perhaps feeling obligated to find at least one thing negative to say, Blanche conjectured that the prose might be “too gorgeous.” I guess she meant that the sonorousness of the prose might distract the reader from the story – the way that occasionally an overwritten passage by Pat Conroy can bump your attention from the action of the narrative to its making. However, Humphrey’s prose is the opposite of distracting. The auditory patterns of her sentences provide a sort of soundtrack that augments their sharp cinematic images – for example, the perfect iambs of who chinked and slit their stones echo the methodical tap tap tap of hammer on chisel. 

Brett Lott makes a similar criticism of Alan Gurganus’s new book Local Souls, three novellas set in the fictional North Carolina town of Falls, one of the featured locales of Gurganus’s wonderful first novel The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All. Brett Lott contends that “too often [Gurganus’s] sentences become cryptically twisted, sacrificing sense for sound” as “he strain[s] to make sure we know he hasn’t lost his Southern touch.” Lott goes on to complain, “The effect is that while the language juggles for us center stage, the drama here — and there’s plenty of it — becomes subservient, eclipsed by the earnest regionalism of it all.”

Certainly, Lott isn’t talking about the prose of the first novella, “Fear Not,” a millennial Southern Gothic page turner that features decapitation, pedophilia, and incest in the Age of “Goggling” and “JPEGs.” Framed by a prologue “Overture” and an epilogue “Curtains Down,” the narrative is the “novellaization” of a strange and perverse local tragedy. Attending a high school production of Sweeney Todd featuring his goddaughter, a writer, “becalmed and itchy between novels,” finds himself seated between his “dearest friend and two hot strangers.”

After the play, his friend tells him about the couple, who might well have been the bastard great great grandchildren of Miss Emily Grierson and Homer Barron. The novelist decides to take on dramatizing the story, “swear[ing] to God at least 81% of it is true.”

Here, is the fifth paragraph of his rendering of the couple’s history:

And visible from this pastel beach, a weekend captain of one twenty-two-foot Chris-Craft loses sight of the water skier he’s pulling two hundred yards out into the lake. (One red nylon towline just got tangled on a log twelve feet underwater). The towed guy leaves his yellow skis to float, plunges under waves to free his line. The fourteen-year-old daughter of the man about to die, she sunbathes face-up. In a row of girlfriends, she rests on heated sand detergent white.

In the last sentence, we do have some unusual syntax “heated sand detergent white”; however, this Latinate construction strikes me more as Miltonic than Southern (we call “guys” “fellows”), and I would argue that the phrase’s slight tinge of the archaic is well-suited to the content of a tale that smacks of legend; “Fear Not” is ultimately a nightmarish fairy tale with a perversely happy ending. The all too prevalent pedestrian prose of MFA factories wouldn’t do it justice. 

In the second novella, “Saints Have Mothers,” Gurganus shifts to the first person to tell the story of a doting but resentful mother, Jean, and her self-righteous know-it-all superstar of a daughter, Caitlin. Our narrator, once promising poet, abandoned her literary ambitions for marriage and childbearing, and with her to-be-ex husband produced a child prodigy, Caitlin, who, to echo Ben Jonson, embodies Jean’s “best piece of poetry.”

17 year-old Caitlin – brilliant, entitled, pathologically idealistic – is half St. Francis, half Katie Couric, at once selfless and resume-building. The timbre of Jean’s narration conjures a sense of tragic inevitability as a poem Caitlin has written about homelessness wins her a summer internship in Africa. We suffer foreshadowing after foreshadowing suggesting that doom awaits. Think Lear with his diminishing entourage, Lincoln taking his seat in the theatre.

Here, you see, I am setting up the part where the phone actually does ring at three a.m. By then Caitlin had been in Africa just under two months, forty nine days. – This particular night, the twins are sound asleep. I’m feeling feverish even as I dream how my daughter is just out spreading good cheers across downtown falls. I’m dreaming that Cait is due back any minute, that all will be well. The phone starts so loud.

Once again, I find nothing particularly “cryptically twisted” or particularly Southern about the prose of “Saints Have Mothers.” In fact, throughout all three of the novellas, there’s a downright paucity of y’alls. Our narrator Jean is a quirky woman with occasional quirky turns of phrase, but, after all, she’s had a poem published in the Atlantic. Here she is describing daughter Caitlin delivering a patronizing hug

UH-OH. ONE NUBILE (sic) female rests across me. She is trying to mask me. She cannot know how bones and boyish her hips feel sunk into my over-ample sponge-blob ones. She lifts the coarse veil to frame my face. It slips. Cait is planning a major hug, or worse, a kiss, a spirit makeover I don’t need. Success-oriented as any young Ivy exec, she will not be stopped. Foil cloth covers my one eye then both. The cloth now tastes, a toxic net.

No complaints about that prose here.

When Lott criticizes the Gurganus’s “Southern touch,” he’s probably thinking principally of “Decoy,” a haunting, brilliantly compressed bi-generational minor masterpiece. The narrator Bill Mabry, the grandson of sharecroppers, has been transplanted as a boy from country red clay to the topsoil of Falls, seemingly genteel (but remember “Fear Not” above).   

Actually, the narrative spans close to four generations from Bill’s father Red (imagined as a boy by his son in “denim coveralls, red hair looking like his one cash crop, probably open-mouthed with pleasure”) to his two own children “son: (Haverford, Sanford ) and daughter (Middlebury, Baylor)” and his five-year-old grandson who complains that kindergarten is “Boring [. . .] Always the same. Milk, cookies, cookies, milk.”

Here is the time-honored American dream of ascent; however, for narrator Bill, the transition from “a rabbit-box of country shack” to his antique-filled river home has had its challenges. Like many Southerners, our narrator has an acute ear for the sounds of words (and the beauty of vowels), but, do lawd, he calls his mama Mom! Note in the paragraph that follows that he’s filtering his prose through the consciousness of his daddy, blending his college-educated diction with his father’s 8th grade dropout rural North Carolina vernacular.

This son of sharecropping had never glimpsed lawns acres wide. Of no silage value. Hell, you couldn’t even bail stuff this short to feed your poppa’s cattle. Grass here meant to be a kind of moat. It would keep your white house hid-back awninged in blue eye shadow.

I ain’t kidding, I have friends who talk like this – Jake Williams and Furman Langley come to mind. They sing self-made-up songs like “The Hurry Curry Casserole Blues” or “I Was Standing by the River When I Seen My Savior There.” If you’re telling a story, alliteration helps; if you draw out a vowel for effect, you’re underscoring. I’m an auditory reader, though. I hear words when I read silently. I love it when they make music that’s not overdone.

For me, Gurganus’s prose is nearly pitch perfect. I rarely reread contemporary novels, but I’m going to reread this one so I can pick up cross references among the three novellas to fully appreciate its Winesberg, Ohio, effect.