Death of a Poet

Karl Miller

I write this during the world silence which Yoko Ono has asked for in remembrance of her husband, John Lennon, murdered by a crazy fan. I can’t say I’m observing it, but I’m not ignoring it either. ‘The soul of Adonais, like a star’ is to concentrate the thoughts and lift up the hearts of the many people who mourn him. The idea of a silence seems a good one for Lennon. The communion of absent friends at some appointed hour – or, as it has often been, of parted lovers, who arrange to watch the Moon together – is a romantic practice which goes back a thousand years, to the first novel, The Tale of Genji, and further still, and Lennon was a romantic artist, who helped to bring people together. In his departure can be seen the early death of a poet as this has long been known to the culture of romance.

Literary critics have been heard to suggest that romantic themes and mass culture – to both of which he devoted himself – are bad things, and that they are in collusion with one another: that romance is what never was and never will be, and that mass culture promises to deliver it, or that romance stands in an antithetical, a wishful relation to what human beings do, and to their reasons for doing it. But Lennon’s fate is far from proving that romance never makes anything happen, and cannot explain what does happen. I am writing here about the Lennon made public in his art and sayings. I am romanticising him. I am not trying to psychoanalyse him. But then these two activities have been in collusion since psychoanalysis began. It has been said that his inner life should be left alone in the tributes that are paid: but if the ideas which affected him, both in life and in death, and which are affirmed in his art, are to be left out of account, there might be very little to talk about except money and the chances of the profession, lucky breaks, bad scenes – ‘show business’, as the saying goes. There was more to Lennon, and to his music, than that, but show business – in the sense of the profession itself – has been no better than literary criticism at recognising it.

So how can it be shown that his death was no accident? He was the kind of person who is the author and subject of much romantic literature. He was the kind of person, that is to say, who can readily be experienced as an orphan. And his life reveals what certain literary texts reveal: an encounter between the orphan and the double. In this literature, the orphan may encounter his double, or may serve as someone else’s. The double may serve as a friend or as an enemy, just as the romantic ‘second self’ may be more or less the same as the first, or very different. Lennon, it turns out, was experienced as a double by a person whom he did not know, but who loved and hated him. Such are the hazards of stardom.

He was deserted, to different degrees, by both parents, and brought up by his Auntie Mimi. ‘I always expect too much,’ he was to remark at a later date. ‘I was always expecting my mother ...’ He got married, but the marriage was dissolved when he met a managing Japanese woman whom he could address in fun as ‘mother’. These circumstances form a basis for one of his best songs, the stark, raving ‘Mother’, to which the ‘primal scream’ attempted by the swinging psychoanalytic latterday New Yorker may contribute, but which it doesn’t spoil. The song is angry and inconsolable; it has action in it, and regression; it is very finely pitched, between raving and drowning. The words are not impressive on their own, but they deserve to be quoted:

Mother, you had me but I never had you
I wanted you but you didn’t want me
So I got to tell you
Goodbye goodbye

The last words are these:

Mama don’t go
Daddy come home

His programme was both to regain and to get rid of this mother, while engaging in a series of equivocal escapes. He escaped into stardom – in his case, an equivocal and incongruous stardom – and into drugs, and to the foreign countries of America and of a Japanese wife. In the end, his escape collided with someone else’s. The day came when ‘he went off to the fatal encounter with his alter ego at the Dakota’ in New York City: the language here is that of the Newsweek report of the murder, and it is also the language of romantic duality, in which the 19th century set itself to deal with the equivocal, with the contradictions and complications of human experience, and which is still used, as it was by Lennon in his work as an artist.

In John Lennon, Mark Chapman was to perceive his double. Chapman was a former LSD tripper, programmatically married to a Japanese, capable of signing himself John Lennon and then of harshly revoking the signature: with a face as round as a lens of his hero’s granny glasses, in which he could see his own reflection. A loner, apparently. Psychiatry has referred to the possibility that, seeing himself as Lennon, Chapman may at times have seen Lennon as an impostor. Meanwhile the Newsweek report refers to ‘the wretched “fan” who killed’ his star. But Chapman was a fan like lots of others, in that the Lennon identification appears to have held the promise of an escape from his troubles, while also arousing or attracting feelings of hostility.

It seems fairly clear that the two of them were in one important respect alike. If Chapman was wretched, so was, so had to be, his hero. In the world in which we live, wretches are equivocal: they may be either sympathetic or hostile, or they may be both, and both these men, in their different ways, were both. One wretch speaking to another – this is the culture of romance. One wretch destroying another – there are times when this can seem like the story of modern life. Not that the aggressions of the star-struck can be considered altogether modern: Orpheus was an early example of the same type of early death. But they are very much a concern of the present time, as the film Nashville and Woody Allen’s new Stardust Memories make clear.

The star as alter ego is someone who is exposed to injury, and a fan is someone who equivocates by adoring the star he may possibly attack. In another corner of the mass culture we inhabit, America, and even Britain, have glamorous political leaders who run the same risks as any star of stage and screen. The Kennedy brothers may not have been killed for reasons that resemble those that influenced Chapman: we can do no more than wonder about an element of duality or identification here. But misery and mania do seem to have played a part in their deaths. Misery and mania are drawn to the excitements of star and leader worship, to which, at the same time, hardly anyone in the world seems to be immune. In applying the word ‘fan’ to chubby Mark Chapman, tributes to Lennon should dispense with inverted commas.

The impulse to escape survived Lennon’s attainment of a paradisal stardom, and it remained a big feature of his art, where it is mixed up in dualistic style with various opposites. He sang songs about mothers; about drugs, about being enskied by LSD; and about the love and peace preached by the protesting flower-children of the Sixties. In all this, to use an expression of his own, a ‘double fantasy’ is projected, causing us to be in doubt whether he is facing in the direction of other people or turning his back. How can a flower protest?

Something of these complications is evident in his song ‘Imagine’. It proposes the idea of a take-off from the realities of life, and it does so ambivalently. It says that it’s not hard to imagine a world without a heaven and hell, and without countries and killing. But this is also to say that such a world, that the brotherhood of man, is imaginary, a dream. The song also says that heaven and hell are realities, together with countries and killing. Here is a truth which can inspire efforts to escape, and which had him taking drugs, running to America (to be safe from his fans, he said), and imagining an alternative world.

Dylan Thomas’s early death resembles John Lennon’s. Both represent the death of a poet as a romantic culture has dreamed it, believing that brilliant comets burn out, that talent dies young (in its forties, as a rule, if we try to assess the celebrated instances). Both deaths belong to a toll in which accident and suicide are often indistinguishable. Thomas’s verse spoke darkly about the return to a mother, and, quite plainly, about the lost paradise of Fern Hill. He drank heavily, and is popularly supposed to have died of that. He went to America, and is popularly supposed to have died of that too. The departure for a foreign country, which may be accompanied by the choice of a foreign partner, is an aspect of the arts in modern times, and of Modernism itself. When these are combined with an early death – Lawrence is a further case in point – a powerful spell is cast.

To care about Lennon, it is not necessary to have cared very deeply about the Beatles as flower-children, or to have warmed to their friendship with the Maharishi – there could never have been any likelihood of the Maharishi’s dying young. Nor is it necessary to believe that ‘all you need is love’ – a maxim opposed, if not demolished, within the canon of Lennon’s work, by the mood of the ‘Mother’ song. Nor is it necessary to be totally convinced by his talk of revolution, of ‘power to the people’. But you need to feel that he was able, on occasion, to bring even the least plausible parts of this material to life. As he grew older, his face thawed, and he became, in a miserable way, beautiful, and he came to talk very well, in public, about himself and his music. I don’t mean that he passed the old grey whistle test with flying colours: that can’t have been difficult for him to do, given, among other things, that the quality of the interviewing on the programme of that name has been superior to anything BBC Television has bothered to provide for books. I mean that he was more interesting about his art than almost any of the British writers who are currently disposed, or allowed, to talk about their work on television or radio.

In the manner of a romantic, he was both indolent and indignant. And he had a good deal to be angry about, and idle about, when he lived in this country. Who were the other stars in the sky? It is enough to mention Paisley and Powell, those dividers and excluders – neither of them much of an advertisement for sanity, each of them worth saying goodbye to. For a long time, romantic escapism has been professed, and practised, and deplored. It might be said both that everybody escapes, one way or another, and that since there’s only the one world, nobody does: and that for some of these flights and attempts there are better reasons than there are for others. In Lennon’s case, we have to reckon, not only with his own wretchedness, which was no worse than that of many, but with the wretchedness of the country he left to go to America, and with that of America, which worshipped him and also tried to deport him.

It may seem pointless or unfair to recall the attacks which were made on the Beatles in Britain when they rose to prominence, but these attacks ought not to be forgotten. They are what this country is capable of. The poet David Holbrook said that the Beatles were talentless, and that their music, and the dancing that went with it, were ‘a low form of masturbation’. This was in a letter of 1964 to the New Statesman, the people’s friend, where Paul Johnson had proclaimed that the Beatles were common, and a ‘menace’, and that, at their age, he himself had been into Beethoven and good books. He described his feelings at the sight of their wretched fans on television: ‘What a bottomless chasm of vacuity they reveal! The huge faces, bloated with cheap confectionery and smeared with chain-store make-up, the open, sagging mouths and glazed eyes, the hands mindlessly drumming in time to the music, the broken stiletto heels, the shoddy, stereotyped, “with-it” clothes ... ’ Here were two people who were unhesitatingly prepared to insult an art they did not understand. Here was something which it would have made sense to leave.

But of course Lennon had yet to leave the one world there is, and that world, just as unhesitatingly, loved him, for the wretch he was and for the artist he was, all the way from the Dakota to Lenin Hills, where the Soviet police broke up a gathering of fans who had met to share their grief at Lennon’s death, and who were in a position to notice that names may have a double meaning.

The English language is charged with duality, and with the history of its perception. These are the terms in which Lennon’s death was perceived and reported, and his life and art – consciously, at times – invited such treatment. Alter egos, doubles, and the mothers who stand near them in the culture of romance – these are images which have lost some of their old lustre, but which are still constantly used for the purposes of art. The art in question is sometimes mocked, and is only very imperfectly understood. But if the first reports of Lennon’s death are accurate, they indicate that this art has a basis in reality, and they could be shown to indicate as much even if they were found to be fictitious or ‘inspired’. They were soon to be joined by a further report – by the alternative, and indeed ‘Alternative’, explanation that his death was the work of a CIA robot.

In the next few weeks we hope to carry discussions of John Lennon’s music by Russell Davies and the singer Alan Price. They can be expected to pay less attention to the subject of Romanticism.