Saturday, November 11, 2006

DEAD POETS' ANXIETY



This from Discover (August 2006):

"Poets who committed suicide were much more likely to have used first person singular references like "I," "me," and "my" and fewer first person plural words like "we," "us," and "our" in their poems than did nonsuicidal poets, according to a study publised in 2001 in the Journal of Pyschosomatic Medicine. (----What's that?)

"Using text-analysis software, researchers Shannon Wiltsey Stirman of the U of Pennsylvannia and James W. Pennebaker of the U of Texas at Austin compared 156 poems by nine poets who committed suicide. Suicidal poets, they found, also tended to use fewer terms like "talk," "share," and "listen" over time, while the nonsuicidal poets tended to increase their use of such words. To reduce the influence of other factors, poets in both groups were matched as closely as possible by nationality, education, era, and gender. For example, American poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide at age 30 in 1963, was matched with her contemporary Denise Levertov, who died of natural causes at age 74 in 1997."


I don't know that this research means anything. Does it mean only that depressed poets often feel isolated and are overwhelmed by their own issues? Are they struggling with a sense of self and their place in the world? Do they feel increasingly cut off from meaningful communication and interactions? Does this kind of analysis only apply to certain kinds of writing, and assume an identification with between the poets' personal issues and their writing? Is it possible to have writing that doesn't reflect your personal/psychic life, even indirectly?

To write anything is, I think, a triumph. A sign of hope and the belief in the non-futility of one's actions, of the importance of one's own expression or creativity. Writing, even privately is an action of belief in, of faith in creativity, art, communication, expression. You don't have to use the word "listen," "talk," or "share," in a poem. If you write anything, you must believe in those words. If only that you are listening, talking, and sharing with yourself as a reader, a person, a writer.

*

Yesterday, at my school -- which is over 100 years old -- in a very solemn and beautiful Remembrance Day service, an old master of the school (he's about 80, I think) read the 47 names and ranks of the "old boys" who died in active military service. It is always very moving, looking around at the hall full of kids some of whom are just a couple of years away from the age of those remembered. The act of remembering, of naming the dead is powerful. He also read the famous Binyon poem:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.


This was especially moving as this old teacher has read the names at this service for the last 50 years at the college. And has become increasingly aged and weak, walking with a cane, helped by his son (one of my teacher colleagues) even if he still has a magnificant and moving stentorian voice.

The widow of an alumni, read a poem about the dead veterans in her family including her husband. It was remarkable. This frail old woman who had to be helped to the podium reading this poem that she had written, listing the many places her family had served in to a room full of young kids. There are many kinds of poems and they speak in different ways and for different audiences and occasions. I don't deny authentic connections.

I was aware at this service of how those involved were connected to the life of the school. Current students' grandparents were among the 47 dead. Letters, flags, crosses, photographs, and medals were displayed that belonged to vets who were the parents and grandparents of current parents and teachers. My friend John played the pipes for the ceremony. Our students sang, read, and laid wreathes. Two fainted.

The whole ceremony was a solemn act of hope, I think. Making meaning. And I think, it went beyond whether or not one supported war. (For me, there was both the shadow of current wars and the memory of my family and friends of the family helped in the Holocaust.) The ceremony was an articulation that life was important. That a life is important. That life is important. Simple but eloquent.

*

I shall not grow old

as the part of me that’s left

grows old

rage shall not weary me

nor the damn years


yes, and in the sunset

in the morning

and all afternoon

and for much of the night

I’ll remember me.


*



Now, I hear my new phone ringing. It doesn't ring. It only moos. Simple yet eloquent.



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