Pain, Product, and Poetry

I went to my first opera when I was six years old. My mother took me to the world pre­miere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street, on the con­di­tion that I be a good boy and behave. It was some time in Decem­ber of 1954, and my aunt (the soprano Eliz­a­beth Car­ron) was singing. I was much more inter­ested in see­ing my Aunt Lee—that’s what we called her—on stage than any­thing else. My mother hoped that the evening would be the start of some musi­cal inter­est in me. Alas, that never hap­pened. Despite sit­ting through dozens of operas over the next decade, my enthu­si­asms were doggedly lit­er­ary and not musical.

Open­ing night at the opera always brought out celebri­ties back then. My mother pointed out to me the film actor Fran­chot Tone, and the singer William Warfield. She also said “See that man on crutches? That’s the famous Cole Porter.” I remem­ber a cadav­er­ous fig­ure whose face was a mask of pain, with eyes black­ened by his suf­fer­ing, hob­bling along slowly on spindly wooden crutches. I didn’t under­stand how he could pos­si­bly be inter­ested in hear­ing an opera.

Fol­low­ing the per­for­mance we went back stage to see Aunt Lee. I was burst­ing with child­ish enthu­si­asm after sit­ting for three hours, but my mom warned me to be silent. She said to me “Do you see that thin woman over there?” I looked and saw a strik­ing lady in brown taffeta. My mother intoned “That’s the great Mar­lene Diet­rich. Don’t you dare make noise!” I was suit­ably cowed.

Mar­lene, how­ever, did make some noise. It hap­pened to be a mild Decem­ber in New York that year, and I recall Miss Diet­rich say­ing, in her low husky voice, “It’s like spring out­side! Spring!” In any case, I liked my mother’s evening dress of black taffeta with tiny rose­buds much bet­ter than Dietrich’s ensemble.

But most of all I remem­ber Cole Porter, and that ter­ri­ble bur­den of pain etched into his vis­age. He had been in a hor­ren­dous rid­ing acci­dent in 1937, and the doc­tors had advised a dou­ble ampu­ta­tion of his hope­lessly smashed legs. He refused, and instead endured over thirty futile oper­a­tions over the fol­low­ing fif­teen years, with most of that time spent in chronic agony.

Nev­er­the­less, in the twenty years between the acci­dent and his final retire­ment, Porter pro­duced some of his most mem­o­rable work, such as the immor­tal songs from DuBarry Was A Lady, Mex­i­can Hayride, Kiss Me Kate, and Can-Can. How strange to think of all those light­hearted and breezily per­fect lyrics com­ing from the pen of a man whose limbs were racked with pain.

Is suf­fer­ing a pre­req­ui­site for the mak­ing of great art? No, of course not. There are many per­fectly con­tent per­sons who have pro­duced mas­ter­works of cre­ativ­ity. What suf­fer­ing might well do, how­ever, is add urgency to one’s labors. Because suf­fer­ing is merely the ante­room to death, its pres­ence focuses our aware­ness on the third of what the Church calls the Four Last Things: Heaven, Hell, Death, and Final Judg­ment. Suf­fer­ing cuts through the silly hubris of imag­in­ing that one has unlim­ited time.

Suf­fer­ing can’t make you an artist. Your artis­tic skill comes from study, train­ing, devel­op­ment, prac­tice, and innate gifts. If it were oth­er­wise, we could sim­ply tor­ture bud­ding poets and musi­cians until they did good work. But no one can escape trou­ble and tribu­la­tion totally, and the best of us use it as a spur to our labors.

I recall the retire­ment sev­eral years ago of one of the heads of our state poetry soci­eties (you know them—the orga­ni­za­tions run by what Dana Gioia calls “the tri­nom­i­nate blue-haired ladies”). At her some­what syrupy retire­ment speech, the lady said that poetry had only three valid sub­jects: love, suf­fer­ing, and death.

Can you imag­ine the utter lim­i­ta­tion of such an aes­thetic? A poetry with no com­edy, no satire, no argu­ment, no rodomon­tade, no wit, no intel­lec­tu­al­ity, no myth, no pol­i­tics? But that is what hap­pens to poetry when you think that only intense emo­tion is allow­able in it. It becomes walled in, like For­tu­nato, behind the bricks of three bor­ing com­mon­places. Love, suf­fer­ing, and death the only sub­jects? Great—let’s all talk about our most recent amour, our arthritic limbs, and how we are dread­ing the grave. That kind of con­strict­ing stu­pid­ity is what makes a lot of con­tem­po­rary poetry unread­able drivel.

What lies behind this non­sense is the unspo­ken Puri­tan assump­tion that a poem ought to be a reflec­tion of what you are actu­ally feel­ing and expe­ri­enc­ing, and if it isn’t the poem is some­how “dis­hon­est” or “inau­then­tic” or—to use one of the most idi­otic terms in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary criticism—“unearned.” Yes, there are some dorks in Eng­lish depart­ments who call the effects of some poems “unearned,” as if they were dis­cussing income from bonds. If there is no gen­uine feel­ing behind a poem, they say, then any lit­er­ary effect it may have on read­ers is ille­gal or at least unfair.

Imag­ine if Cole Porter wrote about his “feel­ings” dur­ing the time when he was in great pain. Imag­ine if all he could com­mit to paper was how he “dealt with suf­fer­ing.” Sup­pose he had turned—God help us—to one of those fatu­ous “self-help and self-awareness” texts that pol­lute the shelves of our book­stores. Sup­pose he could only blovi­ate pompously on the seri­ous aspects of love, suf­fer­ing, and death. Would a sin­gle lyric of his be remembered?

But he didn’t do that, thank God. He didn’t focus on him­self and his per­cep­tions, the way too many of the arrested ado­les­cents writ­ing poetry today do. He knew that the impor­tant thing was not him­self, nor his pain, nor the process by which he man­aged to cre­ate, but only the prod­uct that he would wrench out of noth­ing­ness and leave behind. Poetry is product—nothing else.

This is a truth that it takes many poets years to assim­i­late, and the longer it takes the more time they have wasted. No one cares about your pain. All they care about is what you make of it, poetically.

If you read poetry because you want to hear about the tri­als, tribu­la­tions, joys, sor­rows, and emo­tional vicis­si­tudes of a par­tic­u­lar poet, then you are not a seri­ous reader of poetry. You should become a coun­selor or a social worker, and lis­ten as losers tell you their hard-luck sto­ries. Poetry isn’t about that at all. Poetry is about what a human mind can make out of the whole cloth of lan­guage, plus what­ever input a poet might require from his per­sonal knowl­edge or expe­ri­ences. Remem­ber Cole Porter on those crutches.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.