Comment on this article

Cease To Be
by George Held

My title of course comes from John Keats’s memorable sonnet “When I Have
Fears That I May Cease To Be.” Knowing the death sentence of tuberculosis hung over
him, he worried that he might not live to fulfill his promise as a poet. Though he died at
25, he left a huge legacy of poetry, not to mention his letters, in one of which he coins the
much-cited phrase “negative capability.”

Enough poets have died young to give the profession a sense of doom, though
Yeats and Stevens lived long lives and wrote well till the end. But Keats, Shelley, dead at
30, Sylvia Plath, who killed herself at 32, and Dylan Thomas, dead at 39, are among the
many poets who died relatively young. In our own time, Lynda Hull died at 40, and much
has been made of the death of Jane Kenyon at 48. They had both published several
volumes of poetry in their lifetimes, and we can never know if they or any other artist
denied a normal lifespan would have produced work as good as or better than they
already had before death. Larry Levis, whose reputation seems to have grown
posthumously, died at 49 and left 5 volumes of poems; two others have appeared since.

The early death of a poet can most be lamented when their output has been
minimal and their promise great. A recent example is provided by Rebecca Elson, who is
probably unknown to most readers of poetry. She died, of cancer, at age 39, leaving a
book of poems in manuscript and a journal containing other poems and her ideas about
poetry. By profession she was an astronomer, so it follows that many of her poems
concern the heavens and the rest of the natural world. Like Keats, she wrote many poems
that reflect her awareness that death was approaching. She left us what is arguably one of
the better collections of nature poems in our time. It was published posthumously, in
England, in 2001, and was then scheduled to appear in the United States the following
year, but the publisher scratched it, presumably fearing lack of interest here in such
serious poems about science and nature as hers. Still, her book, A Responsibility to Awe,
is available through in its original Oxford Poets edition (Carcanet), and I
recommend it.  

Return to:

[New] [Archives] [Join] [Contact Us] [Poetry in Motion] [Store] [Staff] [Guidelines]