Non-Suicidal Poets Tend to Live Long Lives

Iris Tree, Amedeo Modigliani, ca. 1916It’s a line from the book The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson that caught my attention.  (It’s about obituaries and a good read.)

“Non-suicidal poets tend to live long lives.”

Do they live particularly long?  Or is it a retirement profession.  Maybe they start old already.

It’s the “non-suicidal” part that gets me in this line.  If you don’t self-destruct…  Poets, we all understand, have a habit of exploding like Spinal Tap drummers.

Suicidal poets (good rock band name, that) are the ones who are too young to have come to peace yet with the challenges of living.  If they can’t express themselves or make their living through their art they have no choice but to die.

Non-suicidal poets tend to live long lives… they’re not skydivers after all… They’re not working on a fishing trawler.  (Non-suicidal coal miners tend to live short lives.)

Here’s a secret about suicidal poets that might bring consolation to those going through a rough patch—especially aspiring writers or artists who can’t seem to find recognition in the world:

Suicidal poets sometimes live long lives too.  They deal with moments of doubt and despair and they chug along.  They stick around long enough to experience the moments of joy, passion and the transcendent experience of writing in flow.

Take the example of Iris Tree.

Wikipedia sums up Iris Tree’s 71-year life this way: “Iris Tree was an English poet, actress and artists’ model, described as a bohemian, an eccentric a wit and an adventuress.”

But if you look up her poems—they’re old enough to be available on Google Books—you encounter vivid descriptions of depression.  One dark poem after another.

This is the opening of one from her 1917 book “Poems.”

THERE are songs enough of love, of joy, of grief:

Roads to the sunset, alleys to the moon;

Poems of the red rose and the golden leaf,

Fantastic faery and gay ballad tune.

The long road unto nothing I will sing,

 Sing on one note, monotonous and dry,

Of sameness, calmness and the years that bring

No more emotion than the fear to die.

 Grey house, grey house and after that grey house,

Another house as grey and steep and still:

An old cat tired of playing with a mouse,

A sick child tired of chasing down the hill.

Shuffle and hurry, idle feet, and slow,

 Grim face and merry face, so ugly all!

Why do you hurry? Where is there to go?

Pretty bleak for an “eccentric, adventuress, bohemian.”

I imagine she felt disappointment and despair in proportion to her hopes for the world.   I envision her as a woman who ached for the grand adventure of life, who wanted to discover something beyond the ordinary, but who came up against limitation, a life that could not be magical each moment.  In short, life.

The most famous speech on suicide in the English language, of course, comes from William Shakespeare.  Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…”

“Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprise of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.”

Hamlet chooses the habit of life over the unknown of death.

Centuries later another playwright, Tony Kushner, put the same question to his character Prior Walter in “Angels in America,” he said:

“Bless me anyway. I want more life.  I can’t help myself. I do. I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much, much worse, but…You see them living anyway.  When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live.  Death usually has to take life away.  I don’t know if that’s just the animal.  I don’t know if it’s not braver to die.  But I recognize the habit.  The addiction to being alive.  We live past hope.  If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do.  It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but…Bless me anyway.  I want more life.”

What I like about both of these speeches is the admission that the speaker could be wrong— that life may not be preferable to death— but that he chooses it anyway, without any guarantees.  There is something liberating in this.

It is only with the knowledge of the option of death that you can truly choose to live.  Once you have decided that it is worth “bearing these fardels,” then you can endure what life throws at you.  You have placed a value on your life, beyond circumstances— a value on living itself.

Iris Tree wrote:

HOW often, when the thought of suicide

With ghostly weapon beckons us to die,

The ghosts of many foods alluring glide

On golden dishes, wine in purple tide

To drown our whim. Things danced before the eye

Like tasselled grapes to Tantalus: The sly

Blue of a curling trout, the battened pride

Of ham in frills, complacent quails that lie

Resigned to death like heroes—July peas,

Expectant bottles foaming at the brink—

White bread, and honey of the golden bees—

A peach with velvet coat, some prawns in pink,

A slice of beef carved deftly, Stilton cheese,

And cup where berries float and bubbles wink.

It may not be one of the greatest poems of the English language, but the more I read it, the more I like it.

I like how Tree is distracted from her despair by a simple habit- eating—an experience that offers an opportunity for pleasure and gratitude.  There is no promise of a better future where all her problems will be gone.  There is only the present moment and something to savor, the bounty of the earth.  That makes life worth holding onto for a few moments more, and maybe the next few, and the next until eventually you find that suicidal poets, too, can live long, rewarding lives.

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