It's a frigid beginning of a new year, and with the familiar comes the uncanny. Indeed, some things have changed. Amy Winehouse is dead, and rumor has it that Paul McCartney may convert to Judaism.
I am teaching a new class on 20th-century American poetry, I am a year older—39, the age of the Jack Benny joke—and there is a new Leonard Cohen album out: his first in eight years, an eternity in the music business. It was nearly 20 years ago that The New Yorker anointed him the Prince of Bummers, and he can still seduce you to damper down. His new album is called Old Ideas, and while, in the natural world, things change, it's also true that old ideas can ripen and show new vitality, even at Cohen's age, 77, which, in the music business, is like 177.
Most of my students are between 20 and 22, when that great cognitive leap can occur, as dramatic as the one between 2 and 4. The only other time I taught a class on this topic, in the summer of 1999, I warned students that they might end the semester rather depressed—that is, if they took their required reading to their hearts and minds.
My students understand that they are not reading how-to books. They are expected to confront the darkness and show evidence that they have done so in their papers. And, as I write my new syllabus, I celebrate that there are Cohen's "old ideas" to contemplate. Listening to a new Cohen album is like being acquainted with the night all over again.
"I caught the darkness / It was drinking from your cup," sings Cohen on "Darkness," which to me seems the album's crucial track. "I said, 'Is this contagious?' / You said, 'Just drink it up.'"
Yes, darkness is contagious, and poetic. Looking at my syllabus is like reading the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
T.S. Eliot had a breakdown as serious as that of his first wife, Vivien, when he wrote The Waste Land. (When he found Anglican Catholicism, a happy marriage, and, finally, a functional sex life with his much younger secretary, he wrote the poems that became Cats.) Wallace Stevens wrote "Domination of Black" and "The Solitude of Cataracts," and those were on good days. Hart Crane, 32, gay, alcoholic, and self-loathing, leapt to his death from the SS Orizaba into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving "The Broken Tower" behind as perhaps the most well-wrought suicide note ever.
Elizabeth Bishop, whose greatness seldom came with pleasure, famously said, "When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived." She was writing to Robert Lowell, whom she loved, even though he was straight and she was not. Lowell, of course, had a case of what we now call bipolar disorder, and it sent him to McLean Hospital, which also housed Sylvia Plath, who committed a legendary suicide, leaving behind the Ariel poems, verse more raw but just as poetic as Crane's. (McLean also treated David Foster Wallace, whose suicide was, for his generation, what Plath's was to hers.)
Allen Ginsberg was confined briefly at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and wrote later, in Howl, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked." And, of course, it was Robert Frost who was first acquainted with the night. I'm not teaching Ezra Pound, but he was committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital; perhaps being a Jew-hating fascist afflicts one with his diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. (I can think of many narcissists who are not fascist Jew-haters, but whatever.)
Leonard Cohen, when he first performed "Dress Rehearsal Rag," a song about not committing suicide, would compare the song to performances of the 30s self-lacerating classic "Gloomy Sunday," which allegedly inspired suicides in Eastern Europe. He insisted that he could perform "Dress Rehearsal Rag" only when there was enough cheerfulness in the room to sustain the song's despair. The song sealed the deal with Judy Collins, a severe-depression survivor who recorded it in 1966 and helped get Cohen signed to Columbia, which is still his label. Maybe I should start rationing some cheerfulness for my classroom.
It would be putting it mildly to say that I am going against the grain by making students turn off their cellphones and concentrate on what is often a place of no comforts and no easy fixes. It is not that melancholy has gone out of style or that it has been medicated away. It has, at best, been managed, with the sometimes necessary flaws of pharmacology, so that one could say, after Beckett, I can't go on, I'll go on. I've lost family to suicide, and I've had students confide in me about their attempts. Am I giving them mixed signals, handing them Lowell and Plath? Or will the afflicted understand better than anyone? This is not therapy. It is literature. But looking into a simpatico soul can be a kind of transference—one that should come with a warning: "Don't try this at home."
There is something voyeuristic about sharing such private verse. It's beyond confessional poetry: Crane and Ginsberg were certainly beyond the shame of the confessional booth. It's more like visionary intimacy, or the still vital combination of beauty and truth. It seems subversive to even try to get these students to stop for not-always-accessible verse. "If my thought-dreams could be seen / They'd probably put my head in a guillotine." Bob Dylan wasn't joking; these are dangerous thoughts. Lowell quoted Milton when he wrote, "I myself am hell" and gave himself an imprecise diagnosis when he wrote, "My mind's not right." Dr. Johnson told us that hanging concentrates the mind.
We will all be hanged one day. Taking our greatest poets seriously means confronting that reality with every verse, every stanza. Live while you can, wrote Henry James—it's a mistake not to. But George Bernard Shaw was correct about youth being wasted on the young. Step into a classroom in the year 2012 and you will find many reasons why students' smartphones prevent them from becoming smart people. Of course, it is natural that they want to flirt and gossip with one another. But they also distract themselves because, if they met this stuff head-on, it could, as Robert Johnson would put it, bust their brains out, baby. Texting is back to the familiar. The poetic, if students were actually to understand it, is an emotional place so frightening, it's hard to turn back. That, I think, is what Frost meant at the end of "Directive": "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion."
You might think that I'm a bit of a head case myself to be ruminating so much about Leonard Cohen avoiding suicide and Sylvia Plath committing it. Or about what great poet had what malady and for how long. Yes, I have been acquainted with the night. And yes, following Cohen's latest burst of rude truth, I've got the darkness. But what good is it if you can't share it with 21-year-olds, who have the capacity to make their greatest cognitive leap?
While I obsess over the mot juste, I do not offer the keys to perfection. I think of a Cohen song from when I was making my own early-20s leap: "Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in." Shine on. The semester of verse beckons. Melancholy looms. A wide avenue smiles.