The Lives of the Poets
I always feel a bit queasy when reading biographies and it's not just the voyeur's remorse. Maybe it's because biographies invariably remind me that my heroes could be petty and neurotic and boring and prone to eating tuna straight out of the can standing over the kitchen sink. Or maybe it's because I can't help thinking that all this sturm und drang, this tangled string of decisions and indecisions, this strange and messy stuff that is human existence cannot be (or at least should not be) cranked out at forty-five words a minute then bound and gagged between hardcovers. Real lives generally don't have narrative arcs.
Yes, lives technically do have beginnings, middles and ends, but they very rarely follow the three act format in the way biographers want them to. It's a sad but undeniable fact that most lives are essentially plotless.
That being said, writing an entertaining biography of a poet is a hard nut to crack given the fact that much of a writer's life is spent in a squalid little room staring out the window. Unless that window looks out upon the French Revolution, say, or a piranha-infested swimming hole only a biographer with serious chops can make such a life compelling.
The best biographies are the ones whose subjects are ciphers--people with a interesting kink or two. When we read a biography we are looking for answers to essentially unanswerable questions: What tune drove the weird and violent waltz that was the Plath/Hughes marriage? What in their wiring allowed two painfully repressed and stunted human beings like Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot to reinvent poetry? What are we to make of the short, explosive career of Arthur Rimbaud? Underpinning all those questions is another one: Where does the spark of genius come from, and how can we get our hands on it? it's not that we expect to get definitive answers; we read biographies to see how the biographer shapes a life. Even if we know that biography is just as much a work of imagination as fiction, we want to see a life as a whole. We want to see a life rendered as a story because it gives us hope that there is meaning in our own haphazard stumbling into the unknown.
Below are a few biographies of poets in the collection of Harris County Public Libraries.
A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet/ Jimmy Santiago Baca
The Stranger from Paradise: a Biography of William Blake / G.E. Bentley, Jr.
Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet / Charlotte Gordon
Bukowski: Born into This / Produced & Directed by John Dullaghan [DVD]
Byron in Love / Edna O'Brien
Loaded Gun: Life and Death and Dickinson / PBS-Independent Lens [website]
White Heat: the Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson/ Brenda Wineapple
T. S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet, 1888-1922 / James E. Miller
Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet / Elaine Feinstein
Vladimir Mayakovsky / Poseidon Films [DVD]
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay / Nancy Mitford
Charles Olson's Reading / Ralph Maud [eBook]
Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness / Edward Butscher
Ezra Pound: Poet, A Portrait of the Man and his Work, Vol 1 / A. David Moody
Anne Sexton: A Biography / Diane Wood Middlebrook
Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance / Lewis Ellingham [eBook]
The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and her Encounters with the Founding Fathers / Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Here is where I usually ask for topic suggestions, but today I'm begging. Please, send anything you've got and I'll give it a go. Otherwise, I'll be forced to post that four part disquisition on The Song of Hiawatha that I wrote in the midst of fever delirium.
Photo Credit: Untitled (They lived happily ever after...) by Theresa Thompson