From Plath to Poe to Baudelaire; channeling a lifetime of sadness into art.
Hello, friends and foes! Today we are examining the lives of several esteemed poets and the similarities that tie them together. I’ll preface this article by admitting that I am not a poet and have failed at writing poetry more times than I would care to admit (at least 15, maybe more). While I have enjoyed reading poetry as prose (think the Crank series by Ellen Hopkins), I have never been particularly drawn to poetry collections. I’ve put together this post in an attempt to learn more about the elusive art of poetry, and hopefully come to admire it more than I already do. At the end I’ve put together a small list of poetry I’ve recently read and enjoyed, and I hope you take a moment to check out some contemporary (and perhaps very sad) poets.
*Trigger Warning: the following post contains references to suicide and drug use*
We begin our journey into poetry with Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), a man whose life could most certainly be hailed as a series of unfortunate events. Baudelaire was a French poet of a humble background. He experienced the death of his father at a young age and gained a sizable inheritance at 21 (sounds similar to a couple of other Baudelaires I know…). His first publication came in the year 1845 – the same year as his first suicide attempt.
Baudelaire was a gothic romanticist, writing poems and prose about vampirism, Satanism, and sex. The most notable of his poetry collections is Les Fleurs du mal (1857). Les Fleurs du mal, or in English, The Flowers of Evil, made Baudelaire a household name in France. He had a propensity to write about the Catholic sense of original sin, feminine beauty and the general sensuality of women.
He was deemed a legend, a cursed poet, a poète maudit (living on the fringes of society and relatively ignored by his contemporaries). He was eccentric and morbid and kept rather odd company. He had a fascination with the American poet Edgar Allen Poe and published several meticulous translations of Poe’s most famous works, thus bringing Poe’s work to a global audience. He experimented with drugs and alcohol and died in his mid-forties, presumably of syphilis. Baudelaire’s gothic legend lives on, however. Not only did Lemony Snicket write A Series of Unfortunate Events with a family bearing Baudelaire’s name (and several other Charles Baudelaire-themed Easter eggs throughout the series!), but The Cure adapted his poem Les Yeux des Pauvres (English: The Eyes of the Poor) into their 1987 song How Beautiful You Are. Both the song and the poem speak to the tragedy of love, and thinking you know the innermost thoughts of your partner when, sometimes, you do not.
This brings us to our familiar friend Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) and his similarly unfortunate tale. Poe was born to traveling actors in Boston and was tragically orphaned a mere three years later. He was adopted by a wealthy merchant in Virginia, raised with expectations of becoming a businessman and promptly sent to college. Unfortunately, Poe was forced to drop out of college because his father, though wealthy, refused to pay for it. Poe was later ejected from West Point Military Academy. Subsequently, he returned to visit his college fiancee only to find that she had become betrothed to another!
Eventually Poe found wedded bliss with his fourteen year old cousin (too much to unpack right now, but let me know if you’d like a whole article about this in the future). When his wife passed away at just 27, Poe was left devastated and unable to write for months on end.
Poe shot to literary fame with his 1845 poem The Raven, a lyrical tale of a man’s descent into madness. Annabel Lee (1849 – published posthumously) explored one of Poe’s most prevalent tropes – the death of a beautiful young woman. He also wrote a myriad of short stories including 1843’s The Tell-Tale Heart, another descent into madness after a murder has taken place.
When Poe passed away he was alone, for he had mysteriously disappeared during an outing and was found unresponsive in a bar outside of town, then taken to a hospital where he soon died. Upon his death, a literary rival wrote a defamatory obituary claiming Poe was a drunk with no respect for women or anyone else. Instead of erasing Poe from the literary realm as this rival intended, the obituary caused Poe’s sales to skyrocket (albeit, posthumously). Poetic justice?
Perhaps one of the most tragic figures in poetry is Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). Another heartbreaking tale that begins in Boston, Plath endured the death of her father at a young age (another recurring tragedy, it seems). She went on to excel in her studies in college but began to exhibit symptoms of depression and what is now believed to be bipolar disorder; an illness that was not understood nor medicated during Plath’s time. Plath attempted suicide at the age of 20, miraculously survived, and was subsequently institutionalized and subjected to electro-shock therapy. This horrific series of events inspired her now-classic novel The Bell Jar (1963). Later, Plath was abandoned by her unfaithful husband and left with two small children to raise alone. She took her own life at the age of 30.
Plath’s poetry described her mental turmoil in devastating detail. She was honest about her fascination with human emotion, the idea of death, and the allure (in her perception) of suicide. Some contemporaries deemed her to be ahead of her time, fascinating, and a prolific writer of the tragedies of the human experience. Others did not appreciate her morbidity nor her blatant honesty about the fragility of the human mind, emotion, and ego. A troubled life met with a tragic end, leaving behind traces of herself in her poems and prose.
Well, that was depressing. For such creatively brilliant minds to be plagued with misfortune and mental illness is indescribably sad, as is much of the work they left behind. Check it out if you don’t mind shedding a tear or two. In my research of poetry and poets, I found a small collection that I thought I would share with all of you. Take a moment to check them out if you like horror poetry, poetry that scares you, or poems that are just straight-up sad.
Poems from the Attic by Morgan Nikola-Wren (2019). The idea that this is a collection of overflow poems, the odd ones out, the poems too strange for other projects, is intriguing and endlessly appealing as I, myself, am strange and unusual. The companion images are full of gothic whimsy, including art-deco stylized moons and stills from silent movies. The poems range from the violence and passion of heartbreak to the pain of loneliness in heartbreak’s wake. They explore the pain of being ignored – except when writing poetry. The more haunting the poem, the more haunting the companion imagery. An odd collection for an odd soul that often feels out of place.
Adrift on a Sea of Shadows by Spyder Collins (2021). Collins is a Twitter personality known for his viciously dark poems and short stories- the gore of which are well-emulated in this collection. It is brought to us by the “quaint and curious” indie publishing house Quill & Crow. Collins’ poems are achingly sad and melancholic, pining for lost loves and singing odes to ravens, blood, bones, and murder (oh my!). Depressing laments mingle with rotten descriptions of death and decay and the delight that the narrator finds in such darkness. Heart-achingly sad, loneliness seeps off every blood-stained page.
I am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland (2018). Seeping with nostalgia for all our favorite horror flicks, this collection follows the fates of famous final girls, or as Holland dubs them “horror heroines”, from their point of view. The collection questions women’s role in these bloody tales. Why do we put women through such torture – both in fiction, and reality? It’s chilling to have such an intimate look into the minds of characters now so familiar in the horror genre. While they may have been slain in their respective films (or not – hence “final girl”), these badass women live on in these poems, giving voice to the horrors that come before and after the credits roll.
Bloodhound by Marie Casey (2020). A self-published poetry collection, Bloodhound recounts a bloody tale of the beauty and horrors of love and deception. Violence and gore are peppered amid what can only be described as love poems, creating a dichotomy true to the essence of love – it can hurt, and it can bleed. The pain of being betrayed, the ending of trust, and the depravity humans are capable of are explored through poems and lyrical prose. It is a noble cause, to write through trauma and the darkest of human experiences, and Casey has shown that it is possible, through darkness, to find light. That’s what art is all about, right? Giving medium to our fears and nightmares in the hopes that maybe they aren’t so scary, after all.
What do you think about poetry? Do you have a favorite poet? If you check out any of the above collections, please let me know. (Disclaimer: I’m not responsible for any nightmares resulting from the reading of Collins’ work).
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
“Edgar Allen Poe.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edgar-allan-poe
“Sylvia Plath.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sylvia-plath
“Poe’s Biography.” The Poe Museum, http://www.poemuseum.org/poes-biography
Freeman, Nick. “Why French poet Charles Baudelaire was the godfather of Goths.” The Conversation, 30 Oct. 2019, https://theconversation.com/why-french-poet-charles-baudelaire-was-the-godfather-of-goths-118874
Boden, Rhiannon-Skye. “The Literary Brilliance of The Cure’s “How Beautiful You Are.” Two Story Melody, 15 Jun. 2018, https://twostorymelody.com/literary-brilliance-cures-beautiful/
Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.
All other images are certified public domain.