November 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
The Atlantic tells us: There’s this study, see, and it found out that writers are twice as likely to commit suicide as anyone else! Control group: accountants. Accountants are better paid, someone said in the comments. Steady work, medical benefits. I’d rather be a crazy writer, said another, though she didn’t say she wanted to be a dead crazy writer. These kinds of surveys mean nothing, offered a third, as though this remark wasn’t already marching across our brains—who believes anything they read? Reading’s food for thought (not faith) if you imagine thought as an army of beetles whose purpose is obscure even to itself, since as far as we know the concept of “self” has not yet acquired critical mass in beetles. Some of us read to put off writing, which will kill us.
“Accountants are the creative class today,” declared a wit, probably also a writer and marked for an early grave, though not in sacred ground (okay, that’s old school, but I remember). Does being a writer count as a pre-existing condition? I can’t help this affliction. My mother and my father made me this way, both by nature and nurture. My father also opened that craven door suicide, turning it into a family thing; in my dreams, it leads nowhere I’d want to linger. I find him but he’s usually drunk and the food is spoiled.
Some people kill themselves to get away from physical pain. Most kill themselves to get away from their own minds. Writers try and empty their minds as often as possible, though it’s much like bailing out a basement flooded with three feet of water using a coffee can, which I did once or twice. [This is hyperbole: I used something larger than a coffee can, I just can’t remember what. And the water was more like 18 inches deep. But over a large space.] The reason we so often write for nothing is that we have to do all this emptying anyway, though contributions are welcome.
That’s what blog is, you know, taking out the garbage that is not really garbage, but that will become so if left alone too long. Blog is a good word for a lively, nervous sort of maybe, maybe-not garbage. Readers are necessary, though sometimes an irritant. The most important thing to remember, when reading what is called “creative” work, is that it’s about you only if you love it. If you can’t love it, or feel at least a little fond, you don’t need to hate it or be insulted because it has nothing to do with you. This is general advice and doesn’t have anything to do with writing and suicide.
As I tweaked the above, my computer informed me: You are running on reserve battery power. Your computer will shut down soon unless you connect to a power source. Go ahead, drown me in metaphor, I retort. I asked for it, all those years ago, writing that first poem about a puppy. And by the way, I’ve been drowned before, I add piteously. I survived. One of the many Tibetan hells is a giant eternal washing machine rinse cycle. No, I just made that up, which makes it more likely to happen to me.
Writers commit suicide so often, though rarely more than once, because we’re used to making characters do horrible things that we don’t have to pay for—on the contrary, we’re told that if we do this well enough, we’ll achieve great renown, with money falling from the sky. Novelists, I mean. Poets are told things like, “Isn’t poetry a kind of 19th century thing?” Yes, like sex and eating and murder and politics.
You heard about the Republican who is refusing to ever speak to a Democrat again, for the rest of his life, including members of his own family? He’s a writer. The dirty secret is, we’re all like that—writers—in one key respect…
Here’s a couple of poems about writers and suicide. Jack Spicer died of alcoholism, which counts. John Berryman is the poet referred to in the second poem.
Poem for Jack Spicer
It’s the start of baseball season,
and I am thinking again
as I do every year
in early April now
that I live in California
where afternoon is a blue
span to languidly cross
of those long ones
you used to sort of sleep
through getting drunk
on many beers, lying
next to your radio
on a little square of grass
in the sun, listening
half to the game and half
to the Pacific water gently
slapping the concrete
barrier of the man-made cove.
I have heard it and it sounds
like conversations among
not there people I can’t
quite hear. But you could.
And later you would try
to remember what they said
and transcribe it on your
in your sad, horrible room.
When I read your poems
about suicide and psychoanalysis
I feel very lucky and ashamed
to be alive at all. Everyone
has been talking lately
about radiation, iodine,
and wind, and you are in
your grave, far from the water.
I know I don’t care about you
at all but when I look
at your photograph,
your round head tilted up
so you are staring down
at everyone, I remember
how much you hated your body.
Today I will go down by the water
where you used to sit and think
I do not hate my body
even though I often do.
When I die please write he tried
on whatever stone you choose.
In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs
Friends making off ahead of time
on their own, I call that willful, John,
but that’s not judgement, only argument
such as we’ve had before.
I watch a shaky man climb
a cast-iron railing in my head, on
a Mississippi bluff, though I had meant
to dissuade him. I call out, and he doesn’t hear.
‘Fantastic! Fantastic! Thank thee, dear Lord’
is what you said we were to write on your stone,
but you go down without so much as a note.
Did you wave jauntily, like the German ace
in a silent film, to a passerby, as the paper said?
We have to understand how you got
from here to there, a hundred feet straight down.
Though you had told us and told us,
and how it would be underground
and how it would be for us left here,
who could have plotted that swift chute
from the late height of your prizes?
For all your indignation, your voice
was part howl only, part of it was caress.
Adorable was a word you threw around,
fastidious John of the gross disguises,
and despair was another: ‘this work of almost despair.’
Morale is what I think about all the time
now, what hopeful men and women can say and do.
But having to speak for you, I can’t
lie. ‘Let his giant faults appear, as sent
together with his virtues down,’ the song says.
It says suicide is a crime
and that wives and children deserve better than this.
None of us deserved, of course, you.
Do we wave back now, or what do we do?
You were never reluctant to instruct.
I do what’s in character, I look for things
to praise on the riverbanks and I praise them.
We are all relicts, of some great joy, wearing black,
but this book is full of marvelous songs.
Don’t let us contract your dread recidivism
and start falling from our own iron railings.
Wave from the fat book again, make us wave back.
And here’s one of Berryman’s Dream Songs (no 29). The last stanza always gets to me.
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
I suggest listening with your eyes closed first. Watching him is very distracting.