You know the reputation that oftentimes accompanies successful writers: Narcissistic but tormented, creative geniuses. Many leave a legacy of work — accompanied by a litany of questions. The end of October marks the birthdays of three deceased, unique, but legendary writers, each who left behind a complex reputation — and some rules even the living can live by.
An ardent anti-Semite, zealous political activist (he was arrested for treason), and poet whose body of work spanned nearly five decades, Ezra Pound (born October 30, 1885) lived fully and with passionate conviction, even if those convictions seemed misguided at times. One of his friends and contemporaries, Earnest Hemingway spoke highly of Pound, remarking in 1925: “He defends [his friends] when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail.… He writes articles about them. He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying… he advances them hospital expenses and dissuades them from suicide.”
However, despite notoriety, accolades, and contemporaries like Hemingway, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, Pound remained incredulous about his writing legacy. “My own work does not make sense. A mess… my writing, stupidity and ignorance all the way through… the intention was bad, anything I’ve done has been an accident, in spite of my spoiled intentions the preoccupation with stupid and irrelevant matters.” Even idealistic fervor or literary praise couldn’t keep Pound from disillusionment. Writers are notoriously hard on themselves; something that can lead to a worse outcome than disenchantment.
The debate surrounding the life and work of Sylvia Plath (born October 27, 1932; she would have been 81 this year) has resurfaced this year, with the publication of two new biographies attempting to examine her complicated mental health — which likely led to her suicide — and the juxtaposition of her life as wife, mother, writer ,and poet. Her book The Bell Jar is widely recognized as one of the great semi-autobiographical works of the post-modern period and she won the Pulitzer Prize (posthumously) for The Collected Poems. She certainly embodied a different kind of female writer: She paved the way for her generation to both embrace womanhood — she had two children — and still managed to produce a regular stream of quality poetry. As a woman writer I cannot help but laud her for that — an accomplishment in and of itself, especially in the ’50s and ’60s.
However, I hesitate to glorify a woman just because she balanced work and home but chose to take her own life. Instead, I err on the side of sadness and caution, encouraging other writers who struggle similarly with their own mental health or the balance of work and parenthood to seek help regularly and confidently. (Though it’s reported Plath did seek medical help.)
Elizabeth Gilbert gave a now-famous TED talk on this very subject, encouraging artistic people to shun the sad trend: “We writers… [and] creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation of being enormously mentally unstable. All you have to do is look at the very grim death count in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent creative minds who died young and often at their own hands…”
Her suggestion — though well-received — was quite surprising in that she essentially encouraged writers to look beyond themselves — as Pound and Plath seemed unable to — but to God or another spiritual being as the source for both inspiration and even roadblocks: “Maybe [artistry] doesn’t have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe, in the first place, that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you. But maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you’re finished… it starts to change everything.”
One writer who seemed to do that successfully, at least to some extent, was the poet John Keats (born October 31, 1795). One of the most recognized English Romantic poets along with contemporaries like Lord Byron, he died at age 25, just four years after he first saw his work published. Though critics didn’t receive some of his earlier work well, he kept writing. He continued to write feverishly and composed many of his major poems after he’d already begun showing signs of tuberculosis, the disease which killed many family members. With death in sight, he believed his work had failed to be particularly moving or influential, still he did not despair and wrote his lover Fanny Brawne: “I have left no immortal work behind me nothing to make my friends proud of my memory — but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.”
Each of these writers was born during the month of change and while they each shared some similarities and some measure of success — either during life or posthumously — the thing that separates them is their change of perspective: Outward, instead of inward. Good advice whether in October 1795 or October 2013.
Image: Wikimedia Commons