Vanishing Poets

‘How hard to grasp a former presence’
John Hoffman

To write poetry is, for the most part, to make a continued and dedicated investment in the fact of your irrelevance. While many would recognize a few tricks of the form (probably more than would be able to name techniques for painting, for example) it remains an art more likely to be attempted than it is to be read. Insular, fiddly, demanding, opaque, poetry often seems active in its relative unpopularity. ‘I too dislike it.’ Marianne Moore, wrote. ‘There must be something other than all this fiddle.’ Quite. I’ve had friends, old friends, good friends, react with something approaching disgust whenever I bring the subject up. To read it is one thing, but to write it…? Come on Dan. Take up fishing, or something.

Terrence Malick, Shaun Ryder, Dejan Savisevic, and Damon Hirst. If you’ve ever wondered what they all have in common, over the years I’ve heard them nominated as poets. A cynic might see that as proving that if you want to be accepted in the popular imagination as a poet, it’s best not to bother with the messy business of writing it. Elsewhere, the idea of ‘the poet’ hangs around in the popular consciousness, usually more for its mythic properties, ideally by that poet being dead. Orpheus, Sappho, Byron, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath: you can see why these stories have a currency beyond the more mundane reality of someone hawking pamphlets from a pub table. Poets toil away writing obscure things in obscurity knowing that death will really leave them disappeared. But will it? The act of writing anything- screenplays, sonnets, blogposts, novellas- entails a certain level of faith. If family and war are the great enablers of the novelist, then vanishing is the great enabler of the poet. Emily Dickinson had to disappear before her work could escape the bureau. John Hoffman, a minor Beat, had his small body of work mythologized by dying in Mexico. Hart Crane threw himself from a steamship en route to New York. Lew Welch wandered into the woods never to be found, while the Houdini of the vanished, Weldon Kees, left his car abandoned by the side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Vanish physically, and you enable the survival of the work.

‘I don’t believe in God, I believe in Wallace Stevens,’ wrote AS Byatt. Poetry is a form of prayer, the distant communicating with the absent: a demotic rule, in that is as true for the reading of it as the writing of it. I’ve fallen in and out of the faith over the years, but there it was still waiting for me when I crept back through the lych gate, offering its energy and beauty, its peculiarly petty canonical disputes. And that’s the thing about canons: they work as much by erasing names as preserving the chosen: they are destructive acts of critical disappearing. Personally, I prefer to keep following the leads: bringing people back from the void, however rare the clue. Two discoveries, Kevin Stratford and Christopher Perret, linger for me as much for the manner of their appearance as the impact or the quality of their work. I heard of Stratford in the afterword to Somebody Else, Charles Nicholl’s book on Rimbaud’s years in Africa; Perret would be mentioned in passing in the draft of a novel passed onto me by a friend. These perfectly oblique ways of survival are testament to the way poets live on through the act of disappearing. Poetry is an oral art: word of mouth. It should be no real surprise that poets end up surviving by word of mouth too.

‘To die this way is quite all right with me.’
Weldon Kees

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