Scary Monsters, Super Creeps: Poets Behaving Badly (or Not).
When Rimbaud was introduced to the leading lights of Parisian poetry, he managed to alienate dang near every one of them within minutes. After the group's tres gentile dinner, each poet stood and read his verse aloud. Rimbaud listened more or less politely for a time, then pronounced each man's poem...um...not good. Actually, he used a scatological term more appropriate to the barnyard than to a literary salon. That it turns out his assessment was by and large correct, makes it no less rude.
The only poet among them who saw Rimbaud’s genius and who could also put up with his Sid-Vicious-does-the-Belle-Epoque act was Verlaine who Rimbaud beat, mercilessly defamed and eventually stabbed for his trouble. For his part, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the arm when the latter tried to leave him.
The history of poetry is rife with snotty little brats and incorrigible criminals. Here are a few of the low-lifes who make the highlights:
Christopher Marlowe was known to be a thoroughly--unctuously--disagreeable chap who did something to someone heinous enough to get stabbed in the eye for it.
Francois Villon was a murderer.
T. S. Eliot was an anti-Semite and misogynist.
Ezra Pound was a charter member of the Mussolini fan club (and an anti-Semite),
Dylan Thomas was a sot of the first order who was known to mistake umbrella stands and fireplaces for public restrooms when he had a few too many in him (which, by all accounts, was almost always).
But wait! There’s more.
Robert Lowell died in the back of taxicab on the last leg of a trip from Ireland where he had been visiting his current wife whom he had just ask to become his third ex-wife The taxicab was in route to his second ex-wife’s apartment. In his arms was a painting of the current wife, (i.e. third ex-wife-in-waiting and sudden widow).
Sylvia Plath turned on the gas and stuck her head in the oven for the final time while her two children slept in the next room.
Byron…well…Byron pretty much single-handedly created the archetype of the poet as amoral-pansexual-seducer-of-other-men’s-wives. A vocation he attacked with preternatural gusto. That he managed to write anything at all, let alone some pretty nifty verse, is a testament to his stamina, if nothing else.
Which leads to me to the question: where have all the monsters gone?
Poets nowadays are about as exciting as CPAs. By and large, they are quiet, sensitive, sensible and well-adjusted, more likely to be found sipping chamomile tea than drinking life to the lees. All of which makes their mothers proud, but makes the culture a little drabber, a little less fun.
Something you might have noticed about the list above is that the people on it weren't just monsters in their personal lives, they were monsters on the page. With one or two exceptions, they were innovators. All of them had unmistakable poetic voices. All of them not only pushed the boundaries of the form, they pushed the form into the public consciousness.
Poetry could use a couple bad people with great talent right about now.
As always, comments, questions, snorts of derision, bon mots, brickbats or anything else you think might be appropriate for the comments section are warmly welcomed. Thanks for reading.