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Not much else to do on a rainy day

<oet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music... and then people crowd about the poet and say to him: "Sing for us soon again;" that is as much as to say. "May new sufferings torment your soul." 

– Soren Kierkegaard

I’m reading a book by a poet who would be my age if he hadn’t killed himself two years ago. He has a poem called “Not much else to do on a rainy day” and the first line is “But kill yourself.” He has a poem called “This is what will save you” and it didn’t. He has a poem called “To Spencer Kimball in Five Years” which must now be floating around the dead-letter office where Bartleby used to work. He has a poem called “Reborn as a lightning bolt.” Maybe he was.

Looking at the book, it seems obvious. Did he just not show his poems to anyone? Or did it just seem edgy, or insincere? I’ve always been told to write what I know. Could you have told him not to do the same?
Why do artists have to die like this? There’s a twisted correlation between making beautiful things and bloodstains on the bookshelves.

Maybe it’s because we accept it at this point. Artists have very public depression and drug addictions. Bank tellers and flight attendants have secret ones. There’s this idea that because it’s so public, it’s more stable, and you wouldn’t want to mess with the art. Death has been courting them for so long they must know better than to get drunk and take him home.

My friend Corley once said, “I only want to be a writer to the extent that I get to have a wife and kids and a shot at happiness. If I can’t get that, I’m out.”

I talked to him on the phone recently, and he was about as happy as I’ve ever heard him. He’s writing his novel now, spending all the daylight hours he isn’t teaching as well as some of the night ones writing and writing and writing. To quote him, “After writing all day, whatever else I do feels like just f***ing around. It’s great.”
He’s acknowledged that writing is what he wants to do, and he’s devoting all that time to it, and it feels good, especially the feeling of having done it. Everything afterward is fun and gravy.

Isn’t that what we all want to do with our lives? Do what we love during the day and just be happy and carefree everytime else? Is this some secret other artists haven’t figured out? Is it possible to change the shape of your lips?

For a long time I never considered being a poet because I never really suffered from much. I generally liked my life and was happy most of the time. What would I write about? I’ve since overcome these initial misconceptions. Poetry comes from a joyful place inside me, at least most of the time. But I still wrestle with the fact that so many poets, and artists of all kinds, struggle with so much hardship, and their art is often a manifestation of that. Would we want them to be happy if it meant they stopped making such pretty things?
It’s like the old thought experiment:  if you could go back in time and stop Jimi Hendrix from doing drugs, would you? He might still be alive, but what color would the haze be?


New York poet Jeannann Verlee has a poem called “The Session,” about grief-induced psychosis. It is absolutely bleak, and completely brilliant. I heard a recording of this poem once that was followed by an interview:

Host: The poems from your last book have been described as suggesting a dark history of regret, but one that manages to celebrate, nay even forgive human frailty… In this poem, I see the dark regret, but not the celebration or the forgiveness. Are you writing from a darker place? Is that even possible?

(Audience laughter)

Verlee: It clearly is possible. No one thought it could be… Yes, it’s coming from a much darker place. I am not in a place yet where I can celebrate any of it and certainly not a place where I can forgive. The next manuscript may include more celebration and hootenanny, but I’m not there yet. Hootenanny.

With that last “Hootenanny” delivered in a bemused deadpan, the audience is no longer laughing. What do you say to her? The interviewer implies that her poetry typically comes from a dark place, and then she acknowledges that yes, this poetry is even darker, and everyone has a laugh. Laugh about her life, the fact she can’t have children, the beautiful scar-filled ways she tries to cope. I don’t know what to say about this. If you’re in the audience, what can you do but laugh?

If Jeanann Verlee took her own life, she wouldn’t need to leave much of a suicide note. We’d know the reasons.
Is there a way to love her, and tell her she’s an amazing poet without including as a postscript, “May new sufferings torment your soul?” I hope.

This column has too many question marks in it.

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