Apollinaire, war-wounded, weary, dizzy from delirium, head haloed bandage-white where the doctors drilled his brain, hears the street outside his window celebrating Armistice, chanting A bas Guillaume! A bas Guillaume! A bas... Guillaume, this Guillaume, barrel-bodied kaiser of the Now, thinking himself reviled, collapses on the sweaty mattress and timely dies, murdered by a lynch mob of the mind.
Berryman jumped the barrier
one wintry Minnesota morning
after meeting Mr. Bones halfway
across the Washington Avenue Bridge.
For a moment they struggled
until a holmes&moriarty
left a single broken body
like a needled balloon.
So where did you go, Mr. Bones?
Crane leaped up, up, into the azure Caribbean, his rentboy body transfigured in sulphurous sunlight. Like Billy Budd he rose, but no blessing left his lips, no thoughts of sailors, poets, heiresses dribbled black ink on the pristine page of his mind. No thought. Only the aquatic adagio enraptured him. And an oddly remembered schoolboy rhyme: Full fathom five the poet lies. / These are fish that eat his eyes.
Dickinson died in the middle of May, the month when robins dangle worms and kittens climb for fledglings in the nest. She died as she lived: ice-cold, zero at the bone. Colder than the coldest Cassatt, her mind lay dying, turning in its groove. Her raddled breathing filled the house until the evening bells brought cease. Burn my poems, she instructed her sister. Burn them all. But Auden was half-right: poets make nothing happen.
Eliot smoked himself to death, a common enough recreation. Burned at the last by the fire he tongued, he lay on his bed like the evening spread out against the sky. Emphysema, the doctors said. Base mortality, the poet knew. And also knew his Greek: emphysema, bodily inflation. Oh dear God... Tie me down like Gulliver, my dears, ere I float away.
Frost went two years earlier, after the goddam doctors botched his crotch. Prostate cut out, leg veins tied like ribbons, blood flooding his lungs, the old bastard kept working. In his bed at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital--good Yankee name--he was midway through dictating an essay on Ezra, that mangy dog still barking in Italy, when the ravelled sleeve unravelled, and he never woke again.
Ginsberg didn't die howling. He was too old and Buddhist for that. When his body took his life in the spring of 1997, he died in peace, at home, among friends--a good death--rarer than radium.
Hughes, Edward James, familiarly Ted, OM and laureate, died of 'natural causes.' The same might be said of two of the women in his life, and his son.
Ignatow, David (1914-1997), American poet. How did he die?
I'll admit it.
I did it.
I tossed him off a cliff
into the egg-blue Mediterranean,
just to make this abecedarium
Johnson, ever quotable in his prime, remarked to his ever-quoting Boswell, "It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time...A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine." Years later, on his deathbed, Johnson whined, "I would give one of these legs for a year more of life, I mean of comfortable life, not such as that which I now suffer."
Keats knew physic and diagnosed himself, in that little room beside the Spanish Steps. Examining the handkerchief: "I know the color in that blood. It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that color. That drop is my death warrant. I must die." And the epitaph dictated to Severn, proof of a truth the poet knew: water washes granite away.
Lowell pulled closed the squealing door of a New York yellow taxi. "Where to, mac?" asked a driver from Central Casting. "Over the river, my Charon," the poet straight replied, "and into the great steel trees...West 67th Street." "Gotcha." Home to Lizzie. Home. Descending from the Queensborough Bridge into the smog of midtown, he felt a fist clenching deep within his chest. He tried to cough, couldn't catch a breath, felt himself falling forward. Falling. Manhattan fading around him, he died into the whiteness between words.
Marlowe, drunken, wild-eyed, lunges forward with his knife. "Pay, you whoreson! Or I'll take it in your blood!" The sound of running, a shatter of glass. Tables screech and candles fall. Two men struggle in the fiery darkness until the steel blade finds its home. The tall man stage-whispers, "Greetings from Her Majesty, Kit," and stands unsteadily, Shakes himself, staggers from the inn.
Neruda died just twelve days after the death of Allende and the murder of Chilean democracy in an American corporate coup. (See Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power for the role of ITT and Anaconda and the Nixon administration's plan to "make the economy scream.") Soldiers ripped his house apart. "You won't find anything here but poems," the dead man said. The poet's body rejected Pinochet like a failed transplant. He bled with Chile, died with Chile, his funeral the first moment of protest in a generation of fear.
Owen, who knew better than the old lies, heard the congested coughing of a German machine gun just before he died. Dulce et decorum est to be hacked up like bloody sputum at the age of twenty-five.
Pound the fascist fuck outlived all the other, better Modernists, dying unromantically in a Venice hospital in 1972. Go figure. But give the rat bastard his due: he got Joyce and Eliot published, re-made The Waste Land, and in one hundred and twenty-three ways made himself indispensable to Modernism. And when he wasn't prostituting his poetry to crazy politics, he wrote some beautiful verse. An asshole can be a great poet too.
Quilty was more playwright than poet but nonexistent nonetheless. He expired from multiple gunshot wounds inflicted by a humbly umbral assassin at the end--or before the beginning--of a novel by Nabokov (pseudonym of Darkbloom, V.)
Rimbaud in a Marseilles deathroom screams in his agony, sweats tears of pain, goes down in a hellish season, leaves no epitaph. Poems and Paul darkly backward now, he dies a failed colonial, a century's cliche, a death of three dots... But there are, we must remember, worse fates for a poet. T.S. Eliot, for instance, died into the arms of Lord Lloyd-Webber. Meow.
Sexton's long drive to nowhere was limerickly predictable. Electric ranges obsolesced Sylvia's way, so she breathed the exhaust of an automobile to her death in 1974, a year when gas was cheap and life slightly more expensive.
Thomas's autopsy report allegedly stated death's cause as "an insult to the brain." All viewers of The Glenn Beck Show should consider themselves warned.
Updike died in the newspapers, and the newspapers died all around him. He's here only because Louis Untermeyer is even more minor, and I haven't read Ungaretti.
Virgil in his deathboat donned a Kafka mask and ordered the unfinished Aeneid burned. Unable to polish it, he preferred to polish it off. Dying, he thought the work already buried, never to be born. Swear, Tucca...Swear, Varius...Drown my child in the harbor at Brundisium. After the poet's death, those false friends betrayed him at the Emperor's word.
Wilde was neither the first poet murdered by moralists, nor the last. Broken in body by Her Majesty's Prisons, he dies in a Paris hotel room near the gonging bells of Notre Dame. That posh cunt Douglas, on the other hand, seemed to live forever.
X, the unknown, much-anthologized Anonymous, died somewhere of something at some time in the past, recent or distant, unless he or she remains breathing, as she or he most certainly does.
Yeats, last wild goose, became his admirers most unIrishly in the south of France. Most people don't know this, assume the echt-Irish poet died under Ben Bulben with a shamrock in his teeth. But no, he succumbed continental, rested in French earth for near a decade while the bombers buzzed above him and the troop trains rumbled west and east. Panzers, pass by. In '48 the tardy Gaels finally dug him up, lugged his bones to Sligo, and set a simple stone. Right here lies the poet Yeats. / Think on him and pay your rates.
Zukofsky died as he lived: into his poetry. A quartet playing Bach in the back of his mind, he thought a final comma, semicolon, period, til the lung's motion ceased and the poet became his book. Z became "A," as was prophesied. It was good enough for Shakespeare, after all.