I was in my favorite West Village coffee shop on Thursday when I heard that the poet Liam Rector committed suicide. Actually, I didn’t so much overhear the news as I was directly told by a former convicted manslaughterer (albeit a nice, well-educated one) who periodically asks me out for drinks.
“I hear there’s an opening in the Poetry world,” Manslaughter said. “Hey, what are you doing later?”
I cringe whenever I read about a poet suicide. Of course I feel horrible for the poet’s family and friends, for workshop students, for the genius art that could have been—but I also feel sorry for myself, for shouldering the same bar joke with it’s variant punchline: oven, bridge, shotgun. When did suicide and stanza join hands? Poets used to hang around courts, nod off under trees. Get paid to play the lute.
I loathe the phrase “become a poet” because becoming a poet doesn’t happen like on the MTV show “Made” where there is an actual final morning you wake up and you are no longer an unpopular couch potato but a prom queen who can dance. I could never point to that morning. Some days I’m just a girl who files Office Depot receipts, who won’t even bother to read the inspirational verse on my Yogi Tea bag.
The real reason I dislike poet suicide is because it makes me question poet temperament.
Based on my three years spent in an MFA Program, I can tell you that most of the poets I hung out with felt deeply, and if they didn’t talk about their emotions and wrote cold distant list poetry about biological taxonomy, well, that just meant they felt even more deeply than the rest of us. We wrote poems in Starbucks to Nora Jones, sipping on holiday lattes, but that doesn’t mean our work was cheery. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I rarely jot down notes on promotions or babies or on-time trains.
But feeling deeply doesn’t mean feeling depressed, either. I’ve tried my best to refrain from Harry Potter references, but I do think poems for me are like patronuses. I write them to stave off a kind of cold, and regardless of how they materialize—I’ve written a hell of a lot of otters—they spring from a positive place. Sometimes I rock back and forth when I write, like to an invisible music, like I did in 1st grade in Mrs. Pause’s singing circle when she suspected I might be mildly autistic. I’m not—I’m just happiest, most rooted, in introspection. I like poetry because it feels like undiluted introspection. I’m casting something linked to, if not the same as, happiness. Even if the subject matter is dark.
Which leads me to believe that poets aren’t necessarily prone to sadness; they’re prone to telling us about it. Is it ironic that writing about misery is a form of elation? (I confuse irony, ever since Alanis Morressette). There are plenty of stockbrokers and construction workers and chefs who kill themselves, but maybe we don’t quite expect it, being that it’s harder to spot struggle in a Dow Jones report or a brick wall or creme brule. But I’m sure I’ve been served the burnt caramel equivalent of this poem, many times.
I think I’m trying to say we all feel deeply.