If you’ve ever taught literature, whether in college or in secondary school, you’ve surely come up against a common complaint from students: “Why is everything we read so depressing?” or, “Is every book, story, and poem about death, or is it just my imagination?”
Tongue in cheek, I always replied, “You’ll be happy to know that death is the great Muse, the inspiration, on some level, of much of the great literature we read and remember down through the ages.”
The students, few of whom would grow up to become English teachers, seemed less than impressed with that answer.
It all came back to me in reading Charles Baxter’s collection of essays on literature, Burning Down the House. One essay I particularly enjoyed is called “Regarding Happiness.” He opens it with an anecdote that I, as a poet and author of two books, could relate to. Let me share it:
“After a small press published my first book of poetry in 1970, I happened to be visiting my parents for a few days. On one particular evening late in my visit, my mother sat down with me during cocktail hour, a time when she often appeared to be emboldened. She held my book in her hand. Her martini was nearby, within easy reach. She studied me with a frozen smile and altered her position slightly on the sofa to give the impression that she felt relaxed; this impression failed.
“‘I’ve read your book,’ my mother said, digging for a cigarette in a mostly empty pack, having put down the book by now on the sofa cushion. She lit the cigarette, taking her time; she was in no hurry. She inhaled, and as she asked her question, smoke blew out of her nose and mouth. ‘My question is, when are you going to write a happy poem?’
“Thirty-seven years later, I cannot remember what I replied, but I hope I didn’t say what probably occurred to me: ‘Well, OK, when I’m happy, then I’ll write a happy poem.’
“Questions like the one my mother posed seem innocent, even comical, but after all, she was my parent and was probably dismayed by my poetry and by the thoughts, images, and feelings displayed within it. Good! I wanted my poetry to dismay everybody. That was its purpose.”
Baxter’s memory resonated with me in particular because I have heard the same complaint about my collections of poetry. One GoodReads reviewer, who even took the time to cut and paste his review into Amazon, titled his review, quite simply, “Depressing.” He gave the offending depression 3 stars out of 5. I’m not sure what he gave the poetry.
As for my parents, unlike Baxter’s mother, they never directly spoke of my poems’ preoccupation with the great mystery of life (read: non-life), but I suppose the thought occurred to them as well. Why so much death? My parents place that topic in the same category as religion and politics and money: all verboten topics in polite company.
The Buddhists, among others, think differently. They counsel that we think about death and dying early and often. For them, it is a reminder of our brevity and insignificance, of our purpose while we’re here in the now, of our obligations not to desire stuff because that is the source of our misery.
Later in the essay, Baxter tells of assigning Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” to his undergraduates. Though the story unfolds in the shadow of death (a soldier returned to Michigan after WW I), it is surely as close to happiness as the protagonist, Nick Adams, is going to get. He is out in nature alone, doing what he loves to do (fishing), far away from his fellow man, far from the demons he met on the death fields of Europe.
When Baxter assigns this story to his undergraduates in college, they typically complain,”There’s no story!” and “Where’s the plot?” and “Nothing happens!”
Baxter writes: “To which my answer always has been: ‘Didn’t you ask for a story about happiness? Well, here it is. You said you wanted happiness, but when I present it to you, you find it dull and empty’.”
You can’t win for losing, is the point. That and the fact that death, along with its depressing processional, always makes for better literature than happiness, which is best pursued without being captured (if it can be at all).
A final note. In his essay, Baxter shares a quote I quite like from Oscar Levant: “Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember.”
Reading this, it dawned on me that memory is like Loki the Trickster of Norse lore. It burnishes the past and makes it shine. It rids itself of any unpleasant dross. In hindsight, it looks so good that we realize we are not pursuing happiness, supposedly up ahead somewhere, it is pursuing us.
The best we can do is turn back and look at it like Orpheus or Lot’s wife, because there’s no going back.
Dead people? They say the same thing. Or would if they could.