As we have absorbed the news that Robin Williams committed suicide at the age of 63, the conversation about his life and legacy has starfished in any number of directions, some of them outrageously ghoulish, many of them thoughtful. I have been struck by many of the pieces that focus on two ideas: the greatness of Williams’ performance in the period private school drama “Dead Poets Society” and attempts to render suicide and depression more comprehensible.
“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way,” John Keating (Williams) told the boys in his high school English class in “Dead Poets Society.”
But poetry does more than give us unique perspectives on familiar subjects. It can be a powerful pathway into the mind-sets of profound depression and suicidal ideation that are difficult to render rational to people who are trying to understand them from the outside, and that are flattened by all but the most incandescent prose writers. If we are to truly take Keating’s advice, we ought to examine the same medium that explains to us why we live for insight into why some people choose to die.
Keating teaches his boys Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with its injunction from the Greek hero, “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”
He might have reached back to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and the story of Ajax’s suicide. In Sir Samuel Garth and John Dryden’s translation, the mighty fighter, furious that Odysseus has been awarded a prize that Ajax believed rightly his, and unable to understand the logic that permits such a decision, commits suicide. “He who cou’d often, and alone, withstand / The foe, the fire, and Jove’s own partial hand, / Now cannot his unmaster’d grief sustain, / But yields to rage, to madness, and disdain.”
Or what about the “Aeneid,” which gains so much of its power from a seeming contradiction. When Aeneas meets Queen Dido, he is in awe of her. In Robert Fitzgerald’s marvelous translation, Aeneas marvels “What age so happy / Brought you to birth? How splendid were your parents / To have conceived a being like yourself!”
But Aeneas’s hope that “your name and your distinction / Go with me, whatever lands may call me” carries with it the promise that he will leave. When he does, Dido’s understanding of the laws that are meant to govern gods and men cracks and she becomes fixated on a vision of her own death. Virgil captures the moment before her suicide in stunning verse: “Dido’s heart / Beat wildly at the enormous thing afoot. / She rolled her bloodshot eyes, her quivering cheeks / Were flecked with red as her sick pallor grew / Before her coming death. Into the court / She burst her way, then at her passion’s height / She climbed the pyre and bared the Dardan sword– / A gift desired once, for no such need.”
I sometimes wonder if Keating read the work of Weldon Kees, who disappeared in 1955. Kees’s fate is a mystery, but even if he did not kill himself, his vanishing act is a kind of self-murder.
Kees’s work captures the flatness of depression beautifully. In a series of poems about a character named Robinson, Kees describes the man’s “sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.” Ultimately, Robinson vanishes, his absence throwing a pall over the world: “The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,” Kees writes, “Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black. / Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.”
Many of Kees’s other poems seem to suffer from infections similar to the ones that ravage Robinson’s spirit.
In “For My Daughter,” he darkly speculates about the fates that a woman can meet, “Parched years that I have seen / That may be hers appear: foul, lingering / Death in certain war, the slim legs green. / Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting / Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel / Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.” The poem ends in a surprising place. “These speculations sour in the sun,” Kees admits. “I have no daughter. I desire none.”
In “The Upstairs Room,” he uses that same sense of surprise to talk cruelly about “The floor my father stained,” not with varnish but with “The new blood streaming from his head.” The characters in “Five Villanelles” are paralyzed, prevented even from acting to protect themselves: “Here in the kitchen, drinking gin, / We can accept the damndest laws. / We must remain until the roof falls in.”
“Dead Poets Society” is set in 1959, at the same moment that the confessional poets were emerging as a significant force in American letters.
If Keating’s teaching took, I can imagine the young men of that film encountering Anne Sexton’s sharp observation in “Wanting to Die” that “But suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.” Or maybe they would be touched by Robert Lowell’s report of his stay in a mental health facility in “Waking in the Blue” that “We are all old-timers, / each of us holds a locked razor.” Lowell himself recalled Dido in “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid.” His character dreams that he is Aeneas, holding the sword that Dido used to kill herself, when he is visited by a bird who counsels him “Brother, try, / O Child of Aphrodite, try to die: / To die is life.”
Sexton and Sylvia Plath captured the grinding drive towards annihilation in “The Double Image” and “Lady Lazarus.” In the former, Sexton watches leaves fall off the trees with the daughter she has failed to parent because of her suicide attempts and stays in institutions. “I tell you what you’ll never really know,” she tells the little girl, “all the medical hypothesis / that explained my brain will never be as true as these / struck leaves letting go.”
“This is Number Three. / What a trash / To annihilate each decade,” Plath writes in an expression of extreme weariness.
In Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” she counsels readers that ” It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” It is good advice. But poetry can help us see that while we are supposed to recover from losses like Bishop’s, or John Keating’s loss of a student and a job, not all of our brains work the same way.