Poets Who Bled on the Page
Header: Hughes, Sexton, Baudelaire
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Poetry has seen a surge in popularity during these uncertain times we find ourselves facing—a worldwide pandemic, fluctuating financial markets, and never-ending military conflicts, to name a few—and quite often crises of any kind, whether on a global or personal scale, create catalysts within an individual to become more introspective about their place in the world and their very own existence. Poetry can offer a natural source of comfort, or, at the least, a kinship with another being who not only knows a thing or two about living through hardships, but who also has chronicled their experiences in graphic, raw emotion. Poets have an amplified awareness that slices to the heart of the strife we all face, imparting a reassuring voice that says, “I've been there, too.” The following poets all walked through the fire and bled their feelings to the written record.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
A poetic meteor whose powerful impact left behind a deep impression still felt today, Plath's confessional milestone Ariel (1965) is a connective tissue to any and every soul that has felt loss, betrayal, or mental anguish. She stripped away the bullshit pretenses and drilled straight to the core of her pain with a brutal honesty that will forever reverberate. An "owl's talons clenching my heart" is a vivid example demarcating the despair she harbored within. Her father's unexpected death when she was nine years old drives much of the narrative, and when she says, "Daddy, I have had to kill you/You died before I had time—" you feel the open wound that never heals.
Essential reading: Ariel (2004 restored edition featuring a foreword by Plath's daughter, Frieda Hughes), and don’t miss her Roman à clef novel, The Bell Jar (1963)
Jimmy Santiago Baca (1952-)
Abandoned at a young age, Jimmy Baca ran away from an orphanage at thirteen, and was in prison by the age of twenty-one. Most of his five years behind bars was spent in isolation where he taught himself to read and write. In the documentary, A Place to Stand, Baca tells of an act of revenge where he swiped a book belonging to a woman who, while working the county jail's front desk, had laughed at a drunk Native American being beaten by two detectives. Later, when Baca (he describes himself then as being “nearly illiterate”) began to burn the woman’s book, he made out words in the tiny bonfire like “dog,” “water,” and “sheep,” and says, "it felt like I had stumbled into a lost treasure." In 2004, he started Cedar Tree, a literary nonprofit that provides programs for at-risk youth, prisoners, and ex-prisoners, and he continues to be an inspiration while on speaking tours at libraries and universities.
Essential reading: Martín & Meditations on the South Valley (1987), A Place to Stand (2001)
John Berryman (1914-1972)
A professor who taught at Harvard, Princeton, and University of Minnesota, Berryman was also a poet who will be remembered for translating storm-tossed emotions into relatable terms that fans can identify. So influential was Berryman's writing that his work sparked the likes of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and much later, Australian singer Nick Cave. Berryman said, "The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business." Unfortunately, struggles with depression and alcoholism ended when he jumped off a Minneapolis bridge in the cold of winter. Why? Maybe an answer can be found in "Dream Song 14" when he wrote, "Life, friends, is boring."
Essential reading: The Dream Songs (1969)
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
Charles Baudelaire's seminal The Flowers of Evil (1857) poems, coupled with his not giving a damn about society's moral restraints, influenced everyone else on this list. Another legend, Arthur Rimbaud referred to Charles Baudelaire as "the king of poets." In his posthumous Paris Spleen (1869), he concisely summed up his decadent philosophy with “Be Drunken,” saying:
Be always drunken. Nothing else matters: that is the only question. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth, be drunken continually.
Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will. But be drunken.
Essential reading: The Flowers of Evil (1857), Paris Spleen (1869).
Langston Hughes (1901-1967)
Hughes was a cultural trailblazer who succeeded despite the constant racism he experienced throughout his life and career. His mother had instilled in him a sense of pride that guided his life as he fought for civil rights, becoming a leader of the Harlem Resistance. In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" he wrote, “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter.”
Essential reading: The Weary Blues (1926), Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1959)
Anne Sexton (1928-1974)
Inspired by John Berryman's frankness in writing, among others, Sexton in turn inspired her friend, the equally troubled Sylvia Path, to dig deeper in her own personal reserves. Sexton succeeded, witnessing a good deal of success in her lifetime, winning the Pulitzer for poetry in 1967 for her book Live or Die. In the author's note to the original edition she laments, "Despite every resolution of optimism, melancholy occasionally wins out: man has decidedly botched up the planet." Sadly, like Berryman and Plath, she couldn't escape her demons. Sexton poured herself a glass of vodka and then went to her garage, started her car, and died by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Essential reading: Live or Die (1967), and The Death Notebooks (1974)
Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)
Go into most bookstores where space is already scant for poetry and Bukowski easily dwarfs more celebrated poets like Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, or Maya Angelou. Born in Germany, raised in California, he wrote about sex, horse racing, clipping toenails, the house rent, and just about any other mundane topic you can think of—most of his life he toiled in working class jobs, most notably, the post office. His unfiltered candor continues to attract new followers.
We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.
Some argue his poetry bends toward sexism, though hardly a man, including Bukowski himself, comes off looking good in his verses. He lived long enough to hang with celebrities like Sean Penn and Bono but will always be thought of as the "poet laureate of L.A. lowlife."
Essential reading: Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969), Ham on Rye (1972), The Pleasures of The Damned (2007)
All of these poets have many shared similarities, but above all else is their ability to invest readers to view the world through their own distinct prisms. John Keats summed it up best in his letter titled "On Axioms and the Surprise of Poetry" (1818) when he instructed, "Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.” That they do, whether they are marching for equal rights, battling depression, or getting drunk on vices, you take their words as your own, finding a release in their journeys.
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