In Coleridge’s Bed
- Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts
Cape, 414 pp, £14.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 224 09754 3
Why should poets’ deaths carry more weight than those of others? David Markson’s litany of deaths, This Is Not a Novel, starts off with a poet’s death (Byron’s) and expands to commemorate, in laconic sentences and judicious fragments, the deaths (sprinkled with quotes and quirks) of novelists, painters, composers, philosophers. As it turns out, you’re not really famous until you’ve left a written trace (‘Hitler typed with two fingers’). But as Markson winds to a close, he rounds back to the poets:
When the city I extol shall have
perished, when the men to whom I sing
shall have faded into oblivion, my words
Non omnis moriar. I shall not wholly die.
Per saecula omnia vivam. I shall live
These boasts defy the many Greek myths that punish artists for ambition (Marsyas, Arachne etc). Randall Jarrell said a poet is a man who spends a lifetime standing out in thunderstorms waiting to be struck by lightning; that was a metaphor for inspiration, though a literal interpretation also suggests itself. Even Pindar, Horace and Ovid threw down the gauntlet to oblivion: come and get me if you can.
Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts are poets and professors of poetry, and the authors of a previous collaboration, Edgelands, which took as its subject the dejected spaces that buffer suburban developments, industrial parks, highways and airports. They have now teamed up for a second book of psychogeography, describing their pilgrimages to the sites of poets’ deaths (but not their graves) and to libraries and archives. (Archives, they discover, have their own whiff of the crypt, with receipts, napkins, ticket stubs and other disjecta membra.) ‘Holidays on the backs of dead poets’ is the way one of their friends put it. ‘Proper thanatourists,’ they call themselves, self-deprecatingly, winningly.
A combination of de Botton bonhomie and BBC breathlessness suffuses the book, particularly at the beginning, which puts us in the swanky sale room of Bonhams, where an auction is about to take place, and Auden’s manuscript of ‘Funeral Blues’ (with ‘currente calamo corrections’) will sell for £23,750. ‘Both poets are familiar broadcasters and have worked extensively in radio and television,’ the book jacket tells me, but I could have surmised it from the prose: the extensive scene-setting in the present tense (‘It’s sepulchral enough on a bright spring morning, as the soft-shod denizens of New Bond Street slip out of the boutiques and PR firms to get a rare glimpse of sun after the coldest winter for years’); the frequent cut-away for exposition or meditation (‘The late Robin Williams, in his role as the inspirational English teacher in Dead Poets Society, has his pupils gather round a faded photo… “Carpe diem, boys”’), then the cutting back; the cameos (‘At the junction of Fitzroy Road and Chalcot Road we meet the poet Jo Shapcott and we walk to the flat where Plath ended her life’).
The gentle ‘we’ serves as a disembodied voiceover as we accompany the poets to Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue Bridge, where John Berryman jumped to his death; the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas supposedly drank the 18 whiskeys that killed him; 23 Fitzroy Road, where Plath laid her head on a folded towel in the gas oven; Missolonghi, per Byron; Rome, to the Keats-Shelley House; Vienna, where Auden bore out his own prophecy: ‘I shall probably die at midnight, in a hotel, to the great annoyance of the management.’ They travel to Normandy to see where Keith Douglas was shelled as he stood beside his tank. They prowl around Roundhay Park in Leeds, where John Riley was mugged and beaten to death in the wee hours after drinking at a pub. They also go to predictable and even boring places: Wallace Stevens’s house (he didn’t die there); Emily Dickinson’s homestead (she did); William Carlos Williams’s Rutherford home (where the famous icebox was, they point out); Elizabeth Bishop’s last residence on Boston Harbor; the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, which reassembled Marianne Moore’s Brooklyn living space on its own third floor. I’m pretty sure I can tell which poets the authors are really keen on (Berryman, MacNeice, Auden) and which they aren’t. The list can get a bit listless.
In one of the most involved chapters, the intrepid duo crawl into Ingleborough Cave in Yorkshire, where MacNeice caught his death – maybe from a rare mould that grew in his lungs, abetted by a soaking in torrential rain – while recording sounds for his last radio play, Persons from Porlock. A bit ghoulishly, they listen for cave sounds in the broadcast (thinking to play the broadcast inside the cave, as a way of returning the sound to its source – fort justement!), and dig up the local weather reports from August 1963. They plot their pilgrimage like a detective story, but at this point too their lyric imagination takes over as nowhere else in the book: the ramifications of limestone caves and underground streams (from the ancient underworld to Coleridge’s Xanadu to Petrarch’s Fontaine de Vaucluse to Auden’s ‘The Cave of Making’) create a counterpoint to another metaphor, that of radio signals travelling ‘over dark hills and deep valleys, through troughs and ridges of atmospheric pressure’ and meeting in the image of the vault-like radio studio. It links up nicely with something they say earlier in the book: ‘Poets are often writing a book they can’t see at all, oblique fragment by oblique fragment.’ This suggests that indeed poets are not fated to die; they live as they write, proceeding from poem to poem, spelunkers making their way through the dark. Per Keats, neither life nor poetry ought to have a ‘palpable design upon us’.
But from the way Deaths of the Poets begins, you would think the opposite. Our journey starts in the armchair, with a discussion of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, and the turning point in mythography that Thomas Chatterton’s death represented. This serves as a prologue to the story of Dylan Thomas’s self-destruction, followed by a chapter detailing the oft-told tales of Berryman and Plath’s demises. Both the launch of a chronological literary history, and the imbrication of poets and mental illness, are misleading. There is no single argument at the heart of this book, because many different kinds of poets die in many different kinds of ways. The pilgrimages simply proliferate; each seems to generate its own existential inquiry. One organising principle has the authors contrasting two poets per chapter (Byron and Thom Gunn are conjoined, simply by virtue of being poets who shook the dust of England from their shoes) but then the chapters get baggier (the one on Auden cuts to Heaney’s death and back, moves on to an anecdote about Coleridge, and stutters out with short meditations on Frost; Petrarch and Dante are shoehorned into the afterword). There are sexy deaths and dull deaths, early deaths and lingering ones, uncanny predictions, like Auden’s, and deaths where poets lost their words first, like Stevie Smith after her stroke. There are disappearing acts (Weldon Kees) and changes of identity (Rosemary Tonks). The smoke of incinerated diaries – and, in Tonks’s case, a novel she claimed was the best thing she ever wrote – still hangs over some deaths. Some chapters are definitively less about the poets’ deaths and more about how they lived, their lifestyles even: the travertine Bishop brought in for her floors, the VW Beetle Auden drove.
Personality is discreetly exuded, mostly at junctures when the oddness, hokeyness, even ickiness of what the authors are doing becomes too overwhelming not to acknowledge. What sounds like road-trip movie humour at first – their sudden suspicion of air travel or paranoia about Lyme Disease, say – becomes solemn, as episodes of squeamishness accumulate. The ‘we’, I start to discover, is not just a whimsical device, or a way to be ‘relatable’, but a real alibi for standing out in a thunderstorm, gathering data on dead poets (there but for the grace of God). Whether they truly thought they were tempting fate or not, it’s hard to undertake a project like this without falling into the kind of magical thinking that pervades poetry more than any other of the arts. Farley and Roberts take cover under the impersonal first-person plural as if to say to the gods: ‘Move on, nothing to look at here!’ Meanwhile, the reader can contemplate the fact that Lowell’s arms had to be broken in hospital to release the Freud painting of Caroline Blackwood (Calypso) he had been clutching when he died in a taxi between JFK and West 67th Street, where Elizabeth Hardwick (Penelope) was waiting for him.
The myth that poets are aristocrats of the literary world, that their deaths are caviar for the general public (or ambrosia for the gods), may underlie a book such as this, but it sits uneasily beside the blatant kitschification of poetry (to which this book queasily may add). Some of the bizarrerie comes with the territory: the lock of hair and other personal effects at Keats House that nauseated me when I visited some years ago are clearly kin to saints’ relics. The Audenhaus in Kirchstetten takes it to another level: ‘A winding tower of the poet’s books, a Cinzano bottle, an ashtray and a pair of battered carpet slippers … It’s a strange cross between a museum and a film set.’ Videos of Auden and his funeral cortège – with a close-up of the grieving Chester Kallmann – are on a loop. Incidentally, a worn pair of slippers also features in another chapter – they quote Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of tracking down the yellow baboosh that are said to have been Byron’s. The clincher: one of them bears the impress of a misshapen foot.
And what to make of the ‘painstakingly assembled reconstruction’ of Dylan Thomas’s writing shed as he left it in 1953, ‘built on the back of a trailer now halfway through its grand tour’ during his centenary celebration in 2014? Or the Larkin Trail, which ‘comes with an excellent archive and an accompanying set of podcasts. The walker with a handheld device can listen to Larkin reading his poetry or Pee Wee Russell playing clarinet or an interview with the current owner of Larkin’s Newland Park house.’ At this house, ‘a toad the size of a small hippo (in suit and tie and glasses) squats above the entrance.’ This is only one of the forty fibreglass toads commissioned from various artists for ‘Larkin 25’ in 2010, which commemorated the 25th anniversary of his death. Follow-up events included 2015’s Toads Revisited, where one could discover where Tigger the Toad and Fish & Chips Toad ended up after auction. A strange fate for a poet who wrote that visiting the monuments of the dead persists only ‘since someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious.’
We learn too there are plans to turn Chatterton’s birthplace in Bristol into ‘a café and visitor centre’, but the wonder is that it’s taken so long. He may be the first example of the kitschification of poets in English: Farley and Roberts go to Tate Britain to view Chatterton (commonly known as The Death of Chatterton) by Henry Wallis, which was instrumental in turning the 17-year-old poet into an icon: a slender boy with a lead-white face laid out on a rumpled bed, the window open where his soul escaped the degradation of his desolate attic. It was exhibited throughout England – in Manchester in 1857 it was seen by 1.3 million visitors, and two years later the photographer James Robinson had the bad taste to make stereoscopic images of it, so that the viewer could enter the scene of the suicide in 3D. At times the authors’ tone (perhaps inadvertently) succumbs to bombast: ‘a stellar roll call of American poets who took their own lives’. ‘Now we stand at the junction of Fitzroy Road and Chalcot Road again, a crossroads that today has come to feel like an axis between life and death, the point where the latitude and longitude of Sylvia Plath meet on the ground.’ Oof!
The Americans Farley and Roberts call on aren’t so bedazzled: they are casually disenchanted. Asked if American poets still hit the bottle in the grand manner of Bishop, Berryman and Lowell, Daisy Fried answers: ‘It’s Prozac now … Most poets I know drink slightly too much wine in the evenings.’ Dobby Gibson ‘thinks the self-destructive poet image is old-hat now. In fact the whole “poet as outsider” thing is passé.’ Many poets think of themselves as comprising various ‘communities’, bound together by the empire-building professional alliance, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). For me, taking the Liebestod out of poetry is unthinkable: to suggest that the art should serve a socially hygienic function – a source of employment, therapy or political change – is like suggesting that Anna Karenina should pursue healthier relationship choices, or redirect her passionate nature towards women’s marches. But then I’m not the sort of poet who fantasises about putting on Emily Dickinson’s white dress, a replica of which is on display in Amherst. (Or, as in Billy Collins’s well-known wink-nudge piece, taking it off.) Pedestalisation and de-pedestalisation are two sides of the same coin, and both are beside the point. Farley and Roberts might recall the episode in The Trip where Steve Coogan explains to Rob Brydon on their restaurant tour that his girlfriend booked a night at Greta Hall for the frisson of fucking in Coleridge’s bed. That joke isn’t possible without earnest literary pilgrimages to mock.
In Economy of the Unlost Anne Carson gives a persuasive account of the nexus between poets and death, and goes back not to Orpheus’ loss of Eurydice, or Sappho’s apocryphal leap off a cliff, but to the fifth-century Simonides of Keos, the first poet crass enough to write poetry for money at a time when aristocratic xenia (gift exchange) was starting to be replaced by a coin-based economy. He was the ‘most prolific composer of epitaphs in the ancient world and set the conventions of the genre’. An originary anecdote has him writing a spontaneous epitaph for a corpse he finds on a beach; the ghost of the corpse then comes to him in a dream and shows his gratitude by warning him against making a voyage the following day. Simonides heeds the warning and avoids death in a shipwreck. This gift exchange between the living and the dead stands in conflictual relation to his reputation as a miser: ‘The formal sale of pity contributed substantially to his fortune and became inseparable from his name.’ Epitaphs were cut on stone, and the labour involved contributed to their expense: ‘Simonides’ poem has to fit on the stone bought for it.’ This fact determined an aesthetic of verbal economy – think ‘lapidary’ – and quantified a relationship between style and material, mediated by the market. (Simonides’ innovations included a three-for-the-price-of-one epitaph, where alternating lines of red and black could be read separately and in succession.) One of his most renowned was: ‘We are all debts owed to death.’
If we are all debts owed to death, death cannot make a poet greater than anyone else. There need be no death wish, theories of the scapegoat, or any sort of hoodoo, in the observation that poets make their language play three-for-the-price-of-one semantic games in service of cultural memory and then start feeling over-leveraged. Their deaths are special because they added to or intensified reality with their poems. While Farley and Roberts’s travelogue may be entertaining, it isn’t enlightening; they enjoy the frissons inspired by this modern cult of sainthood, and disingenuously encourage a commodified thanatourism in an era of dwindling public resources for, say, libraries. Next month, the American Writers Museum will open in Chicago, ‘the first museum in the US dedicated to American writers’, just as President Trump’s federal budget plan proposes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. It would be better if people just sat at home actually reading books.