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April 22, 2009

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David - thank you for this. You are right - suicide is indeed contagious. Many studies have been done that show that family members of suicides are more likely to commit suicide themselves than the general population. The example that immediately springs to mind is Nicholas Hughes, son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who tragically killed himself a few weeks ago.

We do romanticize the doomed poet dying young. How tragic, and how tragic that the most important thing about the artists you mention becomes their deaths, not their lives and work. And as teachers, we do have a responsibility to remind our students that suicide is horrible, not poetic, not romantic, both for the one who commits it and those left behind.

This also speaks to our appalling approach to treating mental illness in this country. Often, insurance doesn't cover treatment - and free services are hard to come by. I speak from experience, having a family member who has struggled with depression all his life. I have often thought that, had he been born without an arm or with visual impairment or with deafness, how much easier for him to receive medical help and practical assistance! As it is, he looks "normal," and his problems have often been seen as bad choices or lack of self-discipline, and he has been left to fend for himself in a way that we would call appalling, had he an obvious physical disability.

Dear Darragh, I can only picture you in your squash whites hitting a tight drop a breath above the tin with the yellow dots portending what you saw in winning the point: Chavez' cardinal catch and other godly occurences...we're all left writing letters with a little Reader's Block now and then and yet again some beautiful paintings. Love, Michael

I got to this blog from Harriet, where they put up a link. This is an interesting and important subject. I wonder (and worry) about the confusing message being sent to students and young people when we celebrate those who have committed suicide with memorial services and prizes in their names. Doesn't that make suicide seem like a good career move? How do you honor the work but not the act? Wouldn't a symposium on suicide be more useful?

I've written about this elsewhere. The only thing I want to add is that Minor Morgan raises a point that I've thought of but have been reluctant to raise for reasons I don't fully understand. Thanks.
Stacey

I had a a great teacher, Milt Kessler, at SUNY Binghamton who was reading poems I had given him in hope of being let into his poetry workshop. He couldn't understand, he said to me, why everything was always fading away at the end of my poems. I didn't have an answer then, but it was because my vision, such as it was then, was tied into the recognition of mortality, which both sweetened everything around me, and made it impossible to ever feel like I could have happiness. His answer was to get up from his desk, look out his window, which then looked out over a large field of wildflowers. Then he said, Come here. I stood up next to him at the window. He took my hand in his, which really freaked me out, and said, Look at all that life. Isn't it wonderful? Just look at it. And we stood looking at that field for a minute or so, holding hands. Then he let my hand go. We went back to where we'd been sitting. I honestly don't remember what we talked about after that. I was still buzzing with life. That was a transformational moment for me who'd grown up among a lot of unhappy adults; I'd imagined that unhappiness was all I had to look forward to, and maybe even unconsciously had begun to create a poetry that would prepare me for that inevitability. Milt worked so hard to get us to fight against simple closures in poetry, to embrace what was difficult to say and feel, and to bear the weight of those things as a privilege, as a responsibility. To be angry as hell in a poem. Not to just feel nostalgic or blue because that was the fashion. To not give up. I wish someone would write the book of writing assignments that encourage that!

Thanks for this good post, David.

Near the end of Robert Hass's poem "Old Dominion" is this stanza: "I begin making resolutions: to take risks, not to stay / in the south, to somehow do honor to Randall Jarrell,/ never to kill myself..." I've thought about that poem a lot over the years. The responsibility poets have to each others' work and lives. These lines have come back to me in hard times. They felt like a gift.

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