Why I Am Not a Poet

by Nathan Knapp

Theodore Roethke, who died in 1963 after having had a heart attack while swimming in a pool on Bainbridge Island, which is located across Puget Sound from Seattle, was manic depressive and an alcoholic.

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Delmore Schwartz, friend of poet John Berryman and novelist Saul Bellow, believed the government was spying on him by tapping his phonelines, went not a little bit crazy, and had a heart attack, dying of it alone in the Times Square Hotel. Body was not identified until three days after his death.

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Randall Jarrell was hit by a car.

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John Berryman, after years of alcoholism and depression and rehab and hundreds of eighteen-line poems called "Dream Songs," jumped from a bridge in Minneapolis on a clear, sunny morning in the January of 1972.

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About a decade before, Sylvia Plath, wife of poet Ted Hughes, who was having an affair at the time, turned on her oven, and stuck her head in that same oven, and died.

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Anne Sexton, who was Plath's friend, was jealous of her. And later killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning, sitting in the driver's seat of her car in her garage.

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Randall Jarrell's widow insisted that his having been hit and killed by a car was an accident, but his friends-particularly those who were themselves poets-insisted otherwise.

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Ted Hughes's mistress at the time of Plath's death would later kill herself as well.

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Robert Lowell, Berryman's friend, was an alcoholic and manic depressive.

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Elizabeth Bishop was an alcoholic.

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James Wright, colleague of Theodore Roethke and John Berryman, was an alcoholic.

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—But did not kill himself.

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Although definitions of killing oneself are, by their very nature, tenuous.

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All of these poets having been, to my knowledge, smokers of cigarettes. Which is generally looked down upon in this country, because it is unhealthy and a causer of early death.

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I lived in Seattle from 2008 to 2012, and smoked cigarettes that whole time, and attended therapy for depression and suicidal thoughts for three of those years.

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Seattle has a very high suicide rate compared with other major cities of a comparable size and is the home of America's second favorite suicide-jumping point, the Aurora Bridge.

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Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, and James Wright all at one time taught classes at the University of Washington, which is located in Seattle.

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Although this fact certainly does not make me a poet, I wrote a lot of poetry while I lived in Seattle, and drank quite a deal more than might be advisable, although this does not necessarily make me an alcoholic.

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Seems very hazardous to be a poet.

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I did not kill myself while in Seattle, as is evidenced by this piece of writing.

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Berryman became a Catholic very late in life. Robert Lowell quit being a Catholic about midway through. Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, Anne Sexton, Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, Delmore Schwartz and I have never become or ever been Catholics, as far as I know.

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John Berryman and Randall Jarrell both had beards. James Wright, too, to a lesser extent.

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So, these facts are true: I am not a poet, or an alcoholic, or a Catholic. Nor do I anymore live near a tall bridge or have a husband or a beard or children. Not that I ever had children or a husband, although under certain definitions I have at one time or another been in possession of a beard. Which is okay by me.

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Still. It seems hazardous to be a poet.

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With or without a beard.

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Of course, I recently heard that the job with the most occupationally-related deaths is construction. Which is not horribly surprising, considering those people work with nail guns and electric saws with sharp, serrated edges and on scaffolding that is occasionally many stories high.

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Are construction workers like poets?

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I worked construction one summer, when I was seventeen, and was occasionally employed up on three-story scaffolding, which I did not like in the least. Come to think of it, I did not like working construction at all, not being fond things with serrated edges and/or very high drops off of rickety scaffolding.

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Perhaps this is why I am not a poet.

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Once, when asked to work on top of the scaffolding, being the sort of person who values his life more than the proper insertion of very large bolts into very large timbers, I became very afraid and asked to be allowed to work on the ground, instead.

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And the wish was granted. A great relief.

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If only it were so easy not to be a poet.

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Right now, as I write this, sitting on my front porch in ninety-three degree weather, a backhoe is in the business of crushing the house across the street from me. It is very loud and obnoxious and I am finding it hard to think. But poets, at least as far as I know, try to think as little as possible and to feel more than they can bear. On the other hand the backhoe, with its huge teeth and hydraulic arm, thinks little, and feels less.

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I have decided I would like to become a backhoe.

Nathan Knapp's writing has been published in or is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio's Frequencies, HTMLGiant, elimae, The Fiddleback, and others. He's currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Oklahoma State University and is the editor of The Collapsar, a new literary magazine.

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