Given my preoccupation with trauma and creativity, amongst other cheerful issues, it will come as no surprise to hear that I am almost certain to buy this book on death and poets. As far as I can tell from the Guardian review its combination of wit and wisdom will be hard for me to resist. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.
Not the lives of poets, which Dr Johnson wrote about, but their deaths – whether early or late, in bed or in battle, accidental or self-inflicted. It’s a great idea for a book but one that could easily descend into ghoulish sensationalism or slick postmortem psychologising. It helps that the authors are poets themselves, whose agenda isn’t to rubberneck or lecture but to interrogate the Romantic myth “that great poems come at a heavy – ultimately fatal – price”.
If their previous collaboration, Edgelands, in 2011, was a pilgrimage to neglected corners of the English landscape, this one sends them further afield, to wherever it was (Boston, Vienna or Hull) that a poet’s last hours were spent. The hope is that by being there they can learn something – about the life and work, and how the manner of a poet’s death can affect, for better or worse, an understanding of his or her poems.
Henry Wallis’s portrait of the death of Chatterton – splayed body, abandoned drafts, arsenic phial – glamorised the image of the poet as sacrificial victim. Chatterton was just 17. The consumptive Keats (“that drop of blood is my death-warrant”) lasted only eight years longer. As other early casualties followed (Shelley, Byron, Rimbaud, Verlaine), the legend of the poète maudit took hold. Dylan Thomas, dying at 39 in New York after claiming to have drunk “18 straight whiskies”, gave it new vigour. According to his widow Caitlin, his “ridiculous” investment in the idea of the doomed poet was a self-betrayal – what he really liked was warm slippers, pickled onions and checking the cricket scores.
In the 1960s, the myth took an even darker turn, with the idea that personal disaster is necessary for great writing, and that – as John Berryman put it – poets who experience every worst possible ordeal short of suicide are “extremely lucky”’. For most, including Berryman himself, the luck soon ran out: he, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton all killed themselves. (Randall Jarrell, who walked out in front of a car on a dark road, almost certainly did too.) The poet and critic Al Alvarez articulated the “extremist” thesis in his study The Savage God and was later teased for it by James Fenton (“He tells you, in the sombrest notes, / If poets want to get their oats / The first step is to slit their throats”). In reality, factors unrelated to poetry were often involved: drugs, alcohol, marital breakdown and depression, and in the cases of Plath and Berryman the precedent of a self-destructive father. But the myth lost none of its allure: Edgelife or Ledgelife meant pushing oneself to the limit and beyond in the service of art. Suicidal painters added to the thrill, as did rock stars then and since.