REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r16

Deaths of the Poets

by Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts

Do poets have a special, secret knowledge of death before it strikes them? How much do readers of poetry want their poets to be death-prone (which might mean gloomy and despairing, or heavy-drinking, or just fragile)? Do they value them more when they are dead? Does dying young make someone more poetic?

These are some of the questions raised in this collaborative work by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. Hopping around on a literary pilgrimage, from London’s Tate Britain (to see Henry Wallis’ ‘The Death of Chatterton’) to Missolonghi in Greece (to see the memorial to Lord Byron) and to Rutherford, New Jersey, to visit the house and grave of William Carlos Williams, the authors explore themes such as youthful passing, post-mortem mythologising and death as the staple of lyric verse, up there with love, war, memory, despair.

Chatterton, the best-known poète maudit of the eighteenth (and perhaps of any other) century, committed suicide aged seventeen, ensuring himself immortality as a Romantic figure. Wallis’ painting made him an icon, as have many literary texts; despite the fact Chatterton may actually have killed himself by accident thanks to a misuse of drugs he was taking for his venereal disease. Byron, who gets one of the fattest entries in the index of this book, stalks almost every chapter, as ghosts are wont to do; he is – paradoxically, as the authors note – a poet who lived life in a ‘blaze of hedonistic glory’ and is yet so symbolic and so utterly memorialised in art and literature, and so of another time, that it’s ‘hard to imagine that he ever lived and breathed at all’.

Williams is a more surprising inclusion, but as the authors (both born in the mid-Sixties) note, their generation of British poets has often looked back to the previous American generation, admiring the direct, naked 'confessional' style. Williams influenced the likes of John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, all of whom feature prominently here. But Farley and Symmons Roberts include him mainly because they want to, spinning a sort of interesting essay out of the fact that he was a paediatrician and pillar of society as well as a poet. In the chapter ostensibly dedicated to Williams, 'House Calls’, they give almost equal space to RS Thomas, on the grounds that he, too, had a job – as a priest – which was not, they contend, integrally connected to his labours as a poet.

This loose, rambling quality of Deaths of the Poets is both its strength and weakness. If you want a crib to read in bed or on the bus, it’s fine; if you want novel poetic notions about dead poets and their work, rather less so. Chapters mix up pithy critical appraisals of favoured authors – from WH Auden to Thom Gunn, from Philip Larkin to Marianne Moore – while zipping around like a guidebook, cueing in random recollections and half-thought theories, and seguing all too smoothly from biography to poetic opus to place of work. Both Farley and Symmons Roberts, like so many contemporary poets, have had to earn a crust interviewing better-known writers, and have a hoard of memories and anecdotes to call on. But you do begin to wonder if death isn’t actually too messy and metaphysical a theme to present as a travelogue. At times, this narrative reads more like a misguided jolly. The hoped-for critical reflections veer towards random ruminations on death ‘lite’.

Welsh readers will be hoping for fresh ideas about Dylan Thomas. Following the centenary bash, biopics and festivals, we all feel we know quite a lot about his life and much-mythologised passing and the ‘eighteen straight whiskies’ and the counter-claims. The authors have little new to add, reading ‘Do No Go Gentle…’ rather narrowly as a poem about death-tinged premonition and banging on about the rock and roll reputation of Thomas the Tippler without pausing to reflect that much of it is contextual and 'period': being a sot was considered rebellious fifty years ago, hence Bukowski, Carver, Cheever, Kerouac etc; Thomas in 2017 looks more like a mental health disaster than a legend.

Their quotation of Donald Davies’ comments in 1975 does, however, bear repetition:

‘[Dylan Thomas’] readers, acting out a vulgarised parody of the romantic idea of the poet as scapegoat, live out vicariously through him all the risks and excesses which they are too timid to live out for themselves; and they demand that in the end the poet pays – for their fantasies as well as for his own actions – by suicide.’

Absolutely, but also problematically. For does a version of this grim sort of idolatry not in fact underpin this very book, as our two minor versifier-guides seek transfiguration in the marble-cool darkness of more celebrated poets?

But Davies’ further assertion (with which Farley and Symmons Roberts agree), that ‘the horror is that Thomas almost certainly knew what was happening to him, even as he went along with it’, strikes me as dubious in the extreme. How can anyone outside of Dylan Thomas’ head and body know how his will was acting, subject to the torments of his art, economic uncertainty, domestic trials and booze? Does anyone really 'go along with' their crises and their downfall?

That Deaths of the Poets provokes such questions is its real value. I couldn’t care less about the bits where the two pally poets nosh on burgers and chips at the White Horse Tavern while self-mockingly sipping diet cokes. The aimless wandering that served the authors well in their previous collaboration, Edgelands, about the ‘psychogeography’ of our brownfields, gutted industrial estates and A-roads, here becomes a kind of evasion – as if they can’t or won’t take their subject or themselves too seriously.

Another serious – and related – problem with the book is its use of the first-person plural. As wordsmiths, Farley and Symmons Roberts will know how much readers appreciate a one-to-one relationship with a book. ‘We’ is royal, academic, corporate and when a text seeks to give up emotion, it sounds frankly dishonest. Death, more than perhaps any other subject besides romantic love, eludes this pronoun. On some pages the repeated ‘we’ jars and jolts very awkwardly indeed. We can travel together. We can eat together. We can have sex together, even. But, outside of battlefields and Romeo and Juliet, we can’t die together. There’s something unpoetic and untrue about going on a pilgrimage to mortality with your best mate.

Chris Moss is a travel writer.



previous review: Shine
next review: Discovering Dylan Thomas


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