We have a translation done by Russell Bittner of a poem written by Sergei Yesenin in this issue. Yesenin killed himself when he was thirty. He was an alcoholic, but he didn't drink himself to death. He hanged himself. Would he have lived longer without all the drinking, without the five wives, without the depression? Without the genius? Idle conjecture, isn't it?
In 1971 I spent food money on "Pearl," the Janis Joplin album that was released a few months after her death by heroin. I played it over and over and over again on my crummy stereo. She was 27 when she died. Because she sang the way she did, with no distance at all from her heart to mine, her death felt like a personal loss. Back then I wore round pink-tinted glasses, you know. Just like hers.
Bob Dylan has made it to 70. He's still busy-writing, singing, touring. A few weeks ago I sat in a theater and listened to Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Wright read his poetry. He was born in 1935.
We could all make lists of artists who killed themselves one way or another, and lists just as long of our magic-makers who lived long lives. Accidents or disease take us whether we have fame or not. We all depart.
For some of us a first drink is pretty much a non-event. For others it is the first of way, way too many. How many ofus have had prescriptions for a pain killer in our medicine chest? No telling, really. We are, mostly, safe enough in how we use them.
We like to make generalizations, but I don't think they ever work. Not really. Fire can be explosive, consuming, but it can also warm us, save us, light the way. I wish Sylvia Plath had lived longer, written more poems. But that's silly, isn't it? When she chose to die she was just too sad to go on living. I don't think she died because of her talent or because she blazed too brightly. I can't know, of course, but maybe her writing kept her going a little longer than she would have lived without it. Not for me to say.
When I was young I thought there was some kind of romantic link between artistic genius and early, self-destructive death. I've learned to think di ferently. Tragedy happens, hearts break, artists, and you and I, succumb or recover according to patterns so mysterious and random I now believe there are no possible conclusions to draw. I'm glad that some of our most creative people survived into old age, because their work will be there to nourish me as I move along my path. I'm glad Mick Jagger has survived his life so far, that Maggie Smith is making us laugh in Downton Abby, that Robert Frost, at 86, read a poem at JFK's inauguration. Creative people are either good at living life or not, their luck is good or bad, they are joyful or depressed, same as you, same as me.