On Deaths of the Poets, interest in dead poets, and trying to be a live one

As an undergrad English student, I definitely lost time after searching online for lists of the deaths of famous writers. Some of them are quite weird or horribly fitting, others infamous or still blunt. In Deaths of the Poets, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts travel through the deaths of poets to consider the image of the poet as a dangerous vocation, where mortality seems to be the price paid for creation. They literally travel, indeed, around the death places of many major poets from Chatterton in the late eighteenth century to some who have died in the twenty-first, making the book part-travelogue, part literary history, and part-musing on being a poet.

It is a morbid whistle-stop tour in many ways, with the chapters organised by theme (and ‘theme’ is mostly related to their deaths) and thus jumping across time and place, particularly across the Atlantic. They concentrate on famous British and American poets writing in English, so their travelling features more than its fair share of New York (and a strange trip to my hometown thanks to John Clare). The book is, almost as a side effect, a useful way of gaining some knowledge of a lot of famous poets from the past two hundred years in a concise way (a bit like reading Wikipedia pages to find out how they died).

More than that, the authors are trying to examine the image of the dying poet, the post-Chatterton post-Romantic of a poet going out in an often troubled, possibly drunken blaze. They cover poets who famously died young—John Keats being high on the list, also war poets and others—and those who actually lived out a fairly long life. The answer to the question ‘is it a myth?’ is inconclusive by the end, but it was never really a scientific endeavour.

Deaths of the Poets is written by two poets and part of its work is a consideration of being a poet, in a historically-facing way. There are some offhand claims that poets don’t use Twitter or are somehow caught in the past, which is unfair to plenty of technology-embracing poets and poetry fans who also like old poetry. Perhaps it is difficult to reconcile the image of long-gone poets stuck in their time and modern, technological ways people can be still enjoying them (or Googling their deaths). The internet has made literary pilgrimages of the type the book’s authors embark on much easier: simply search online and you’ll find websites telling you the right house to stand outside or (this is very much from personal experience) exactly how to find John Thelwall’s grave in Bath.

The book has an underlying message about the humanness of the physical deaths of poets and the focus on details of their writing and non-writing lives that feels slightly at odds with its comments about poets today, an image which does seem to imply poetry writing is specific to an exclusive group of people stuck somewhat in the past. As someone who both loves a number of long-dead poets and has seen how trying to get into writing poetry and hoping for poems to be published is an off-putting and often inaccessible place, these moments felt a little off.

As with many books that cover a lot of different bits of literary history, this one works well as a primer on the stories of a lot of big name poets, with the opportunity for those who know more about a writer to get frustrated at elements of their presentation. It is a reminder of our fascination with the lives of these notable few and the almost mythical position they can hold in cultural consciousness, without consideration of greater depth. However, maybe it needs to demythologise the figure of the poet a little more. As it points out, they’re just people who lived and died like anyone else.