When Kenneth Rexroth heard Dylan Thomas had died, he wrote a poem. He wrote about who he blamed for the poet’s death: and he finds fault with us, with society. He uses “You” in the poem, addressing all of us. Are there any exceptions? Is anyone innocent? Is Rexroth excluding himself with this “You”?
“You drowned him in your cocktail brain. / He fell down and died in your synthetic heart.”
Rexroth is describing a cruel indifference towards artists. Even where a poet’s work is loved the man himself is a non-entity. Even where there is fascination with the “tortured artist”, this isn’t an interest in the person, but in the type, the romantic ideal. The interest is inhuman. (This interest comes and goes, articles about the artist are written and forgotten, TV shows watched in half-interest and repeated for eternity on obscure channels.)
Indifference kills. There is no respite for artists on these shifting sands. No place to make a home, no place of peace and comfort for sleep and dreams, rooms of light for drink and laughter . . . Self-expression is such a personal thing, such a human and natural thing . . . and the poem once created becomes an object, detached now from the human depths out of which it emerged. So that it can seem it came out of nowhere. The artist is forgotten.
Oswald Spengler: “Sleep, too, liberates –– ‘Death and his brother Sleep.’ And holy wine, intoxication, breaks the rigour of the spirit’s tension, and dancing, the Dionysus art, and every other form of stupefaction and ecstasy. These are modes of slipping out of awareness by the aid of being, the cosmic, the ‘it,’ the escape out of space into time.”
Art is expression of being, a reckoning with time, with the cosmic, by means of intoxication and dance. To express yourself you need to slip into your own being, your real being –– which means dreams and dance and forgotten memories that now bubble to the surface as you follow the flow. You’ve slipped into being, and doing so you slip beyond space and into time, into the eternal. Out of awareness. The writer writes his being, and slips out of awareness. And we let him go, since he has entered an invisible realm –– of time, being, the unconscious –– and is becoming himself invisible to us. We can’t make him out, he’s fading further and further. We see less and less of him, or what we once took him to be, and what’s left is incomprehensible to us, a hopeless mess, an artist, and we become indifferent as we become oblivious to his existence now that he has made for himself his own territory, a realm of living being.
“Was their end noble and tragic . . . ?”
It’s not a noble end. Let’s not romanticise the lonely existence of the artist, or the ways they died in this loneliness, through suicide, alcohol, violence . . . What is the artist’s existence really? The artist does not choose to suffer. It’s necessary given the situation we placed him in. We would not give him a home, and so he made one. We do not recognise the realm that he inhabits now, in his suffering –– the realm of time and being, versus our own ordinary realm of space and conformity, which is non-being.
“They stopped their ears.”
The artist utters what cannot be heard. What the others are not yet ready to hear. For me, the first sign that I am looking at a great work of art is the discomfort it makes me feel. I’m confused. I’m offended. And then I’m transformed. And so I’ll keep my ears unstopped for the new and strange sounds of poetry.
(I’ve been reading Kenneth Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” which I found in The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters and published in 1992 by Penguin Classics. Also, Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, translated by Charles Francis Atkinson.)