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.