Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

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Review by Harriet

The deaths of poets matter to us because they become a lens through which to look at the poems.

So say the authors, both poets themselves, in this satisfying, thought-provoking book about – well, about the deaths of poets. It’s structured as a series of journeys the two of them made, in Britain and America, visiting the places where the poets met their deaths and interrogating the widely-believed myth that, while novelists can be stable and in control, poets, to be great, must be the opposite – crazy, or depressed, or self-destructive. Think of Dylan Thomas, drinking his nineteen whiskies in a New York bar before expiring in a nearby hotel, Sylvia Plath turning on the gas in her kitchen in Primrose Hill, John Berryman leaping from a bridge into a frozen river. The big question this book raises is whether the fact that someone drank themselves to death or committed suicide means that their poetry is somehow more intrinsically valuable.

In the hands of less skilled and interesting writers this could have turned into a respectful armchair trawl through the lives and works of a selected group of poets, chapter by chapter. But Farley and Roberts are not armchair authors – quite the contrary. By the end of Chapter One they’ve dashed from Bristol (Thomas Chatterton) to New York (Dylan Thomas), and the second chapter starts in Minneapolis (John Berryman) and ends in London (Sylvia Plath).  And so on and so on – it would be interesting to know how many miles were covered in this unusual, rewarding exercise. The logistics of their travelling research itinerary are not immediately obvious, but I found that part of the charm – the structure seems to work a bit like a poem – ideas suggest each other and are followed through seamlessly and satisfyingly.

But how did the ‘toxic myth’ of the doomed poet actually begin? It seems to be possible to locate its genesis very precisely in time, and intriguingly it begins not with a poem but with a painting. As the authors point out, Dr Johnson’s Lives of the Poets (1783) contains a great mixture of men (always men), who:

drink and gamble, suffer blandishments and scorn, are industrious and diligent; they can be vain, foolish, ambitious and sycophantic or learned, scholarly and philosophical….[but] flaring briefly but brilliantly in youth isn’t a recognised concept: in the Lives nobody dies before the age of thirty.

All this would change with the flowering of Romanticism at the turn of the century, with the almost canonisation of a poet Johnson didn’t mention, though he had died thirteen years before the publication of Lives: Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide by poison at the age of eighteen. Wordsworth and Coleridge both put him in poems, but he was really and truly glamourised by Henry Wallace’s 1856 painting, ‘The Death of Chatterton’, in which he becomes ‘a sacrificial figure, a vicarious victim who gave himself in the cause of his art’. This now famous painting has, arguably, paved the way for the public perception of a poet’s life as necessarily tragic and self-destructive.

Ironically enough, perhaps, Chatterton was not by any means the greatest of poets, though he showed some impressive early talent. Leaving him behind, we soon find ourselves visiting both New York and Laugharne, the sites of Dylan Thomas’s death and his writing shed, musing on the fact that ‘somewhere in this studied shabbiness lie clues to the mystery of doomed genius’. This, really, is what the authors are after – an attempt to make sense of the impulse for self-destruction that brought an end to a number of the poets in the book. 

But it’s not just death by suicide that interests these living poets, though we do get a fair amount of that. Set against these dramatic events are those poets who died natural deaths, sometimes at a ripe old age – Robert Frost  and R.S. Thomas both lived to eighty-seven. Are these survivors any less talented than their self-destructive contemporaries? Plainly not. Here’s what Philip Larkin had to say on the subject in an interview:

There certainly is a cult of the mad these days: think of all the boys who’ve been in the bin – I don’t understand it. Chaucer, Wordsworth, Hardy – it’s the big, sane boys who get the medals. The object of writing is to show life as it is, and if you don’t see it like that you’re in trouble, not life.  

This really is a fascinating, delightful book. Written in the first person plural – ‘we’  (however did they achieve that? I’d love to know their working methods) – it manages to be both serious and witty, pragmatic and lyrical. We’re just as likely to find the authors eating burgers in a shabby café as worshipping at the shrine of a dead poet. And then there’s the poems. I used to teach poetry (one of the few people in my department who was prepared to) so I had at least a passing familiarity with most of the poets quoted here. But some were new to me: John Berryman really caught my attention, with his wonderful sounding Dream Songs, one of the most ambitious and astounding poetic works of the twentieth century’; David Jones, who I’d heard of but never read, whose strange, difficult prose poem In Parenthesis casts a very different light on what we think of as war poetry; the astonishingly talented Rosemary Tonks, who burst on the British poetry scene in the 1960s, only to give up writing and disappear from view in the 1970s, though she lived till 2014. There are poets I’ve read but struggled to understand: Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore – I can’t say I will get much closer after reading this, but they have, at least, come more vividly alive to me.

And what about that question we started out with – the myth of the doomed poet. Were those poets who conformed to the role just ‘doing what the world expected of them’? Or could it be that they are deliberately seeking out dangerous, heightened states, sometimes at a cost to their sanity, their health and even their lives? It seems the two authors are not in agreement here, as they admit at the end of the book:

If we’re honest, this is where our own ‘we’ starts to split. At the end of this odyssey, one of us would say the myth of the doomed poet is simply that – a myth we need to debunk – while the other thinks there’s an unquiet spirit in many poets that means the myth still holds.

Impressively thorough, with a useful section of Notes and Further Reading and a comprehensive index, this really is a tremendously interesting and enjoyable book.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Deaths of the Poets (Jonathan Cape, 2017). 978-0224097543, 414pp., hardback.

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