From a neighbor’s window, I hear Billy Joel’s carpe diem Only the Good Die Young in which he tries to convince a good Catholic girl to join him in his bad boy ways (the b-side as I remember is Get it Right the First Time), and I’m wondering whether it’s actually true that the good die young. I think of Joplin, Hendrix, Cobain, their glorious flameouts like comets passing through our communal sky.
I think of Jeff Leah, the genius of my undergraduate days — painter, poet, composer. I wasn’t alone in my awed envy of him, dead at 23 of what might’ve been one of the first cases of AIDS.
And I think of Sylvia Plath surviving her first suicide attempt, saying she had blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion. She and her husband Ted Hughes moved into Yeats’s old house with the blue plaque commemorating him — which did little to keep her warm in the coldest winter on record. Her pipes frozen, her two children often sick, her husband busy elsewhere, no telephone, yet she wrote like a dervish, completing her new collection before succumbing a second time to the whirling blackness. Her tombstone bears an inscription chosen by her husband:
Even amidst fierce flames
the golden lotus can be planted.
Some visionaries flame out at their peak, others outlive their moment. After shooting his lover Paul Verlaine in the leg and surviving A Season in Hell, the restless soul Arthur Rimbaud gave up poetry to explore three continents before dying of cancer in Marseille on his way back to Africa. Mozart, on the other hand, composed his Requiem at age thirty-four while dying of a mysterious fever. He was buried in a common grave on a mild and unremarkable day, his rival Salieri and a few musicians in attendance. Einstein invented the universe in his twenties while rocking the cradles of his children, but later he was unable to accept the terrifying idea that God does indeed play dice with the universe, so the field of quantum physics was developed without him.
Robert Frost spent his last years as the good gray poet, his face a map of rocky New England. The favorite poet of a president, Frost had an unassailable reputation. But his best poems had been written years before when he was self-exiled in England, broke and despairing. Many of his later poems are no more than self-parody. He lived long enough to enjoy his fame, but he didn’t wear the mantle of success graciously, seducing his assistant’s wife and alienating his son who committed suicide. After Frost’s death, his cuckolded assistant wrote a bitter biography. Today, Frost has become an emblem for the abuse of privilege — although the well-carpentered poems of his first two books have held up admirably.
Other poets grow into their voices late in life. Yeats managed to shed his vanity and pretension to write the cold clear verse of his last years, and Stevens matured into clarity as well. But Marianne Moore kept carving away her precise verse until treatises became single statements, editing herself into oblivion. Eliot (Tom to his friends but we readers are not his friends, rather mute listeners to his elegant but portentous dialogues with himself) may have gotten it right: once the muse has left the building, stop writing verse. Instead turn to the less intense disciplines of writing plays and criticism and enjoy what passes for enjoyment, old age being what it is.
But for God’s sake, don’t become old Ezra. After a few brilliant years when he was young, he settled into his affairs with women and his vicious fascism which he confused with patriotism. Too much in love with his own genius to be much good to anyone, his obsession with being original, his ugly prejudices and resentments against Jews, his nuanced critiques of America during the war nearly got him executed for treason. He is not, as a few stalwarts still stubbornly believe, a martyr to free speech but just a cranky old man who was lucky to avoid the noose.
I wanted to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse, and I almost succeeded. Having written a handful of good poems in my twenties, I wanted to follow my heroes Dylan Thomas and Charlie Parker into the grave, but almost by accident I stumbled into a room in Dallas where people loved me whole again. I set aside poetry which I thought held the seeds of my destruction and devoted myself to being a father, a husband and… by the seat of Buddha’s pants… a good man. And now in my 60s after a long career as a teacher, editor and publisher, I feel it’s safe to write again.
But in a workshop, I’m usually the oldest person in the room. In my fantasy (silly I know) I’m an ancient elemental, the last of the first immortals. While I cannot die, my bones and flesh can. After so many millennia, I’m reduced to a sentient skeleton sitting at the bottom of a peaceful pond, avoiding people. I would be happy to stay here forever, but some bastard is draining the pond.
I’ve entered old age with a grain of wisdom in a bucket of experience. Will I catch the flame and write the poems I’m capable of? Have I talent enough? Frankly, I doubt it, but like the great Fats Waller, master of the stride piano, in which the left hand becomes the star of the show, bounding across the keys, I’ve discovered the broken tenth interval, substituting staggered tenths for single bass notes and setting the stage for the next great poet, the Art Tatum of our age, blind, gregarious and alcoholic, she (I think of poetry as feminine) will explore the arpeggios, the black note slide-offs, the rhythmic accents, the tension and release, and like Tatum, she will start with a legato before launching into swing. Her left hand will keep the tempo and the right will slightly anticipate the left shifting into double time.
Who is this new poet? I can’t say but I’ve heard her early poems in which she’s invented a left-handed vocabulary, hitting each note lightly so the words fly off the printed page. Her lower notes are unblurred, and the highest notes are polished silver.
Where do these gifts come from? Dunno. But I think of Fats whose left hand leaped down the keys, showing the path for every jazz pianist who followed, including the great Art Tatum and the minor Billy Joel. Shortly before his death at thirty-nine after the smashing success of Stormy Weather in New York City, Fats was flying down the tracks to Kansas City on the famous Super Chief when he touched the keys and asked One never knows do one?
Copyright 2021 Michael Simms