Death Watch

Advice and insight from a professional poet.

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I’m bored.  I’m bored with my job, with my girlfriend, and with the current box office selection. I was hoping your column would be entertaining, but it’s not. Can you help me?
— PJ, Phoenix, Arizona

I don’t think you need any help at all, PJ; you’re rather observant. A principle of life is repetition, and repetition, though delightful in the best examples of verse, is often boring. “Life, friends, is boring,” the speaker of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs asserts. “We must not say so./ After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,/ we ourselves flash and yearn,/ and moreover my mother told me as a boy/ (repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored/ means you have no/ Inner Resources.’” PJ, your case is not an anomaly, and though you can distract yourself with various Web sites or music, soon the novelty will wear off and you will become bored again. The saying “You’re not bored; you’re boring” is valid in your case, though it’s not very helpful, and I want to help you.

In “In Praise of Boredom,” Joseph Brodsky writes, “This is what it means — to be insignificant. If it takes will-paralyzing boredom to bring this home, then hail the boredom.” Never are you more aware of the temporal nature of the universe than when you’re bored. It was 5:05 and now it’s 5:06 and it will never again be 5:05 on another Sunday afternoon, September 21, 2008. Boredom reminds you of your finite existence on this planet and it humbles you, or at least it should. So be bored and let boredom humble you, and in your new humbleness, more people will want to be around you, and maybe these are the kind of people who tell good jokes or always do something funny like inadvertently throw their cell phones in the garbage, which your old non-humble self thought was perfectly mindless, but your new humble self thinks is brilliant. Your humbleness will appreciate your boring job. After all, it’s nobody’s fault that life in the 21st century requires someone to, say, administer the DMV eye exam. You will appreciate bad films, commonly quipping, “The actors tried, but the screenplay was so bad.” And you will appreciate your girlfriend, because it’s not her fault that society has dictated the particular role-play that she can’t step past. And be humble — your boringness probably rubbed off on her.

Brodsky says that the opposite of boredom is passion, so try to counter your boredom by being passionate about being bored. Make signs and create slogans and pass out leaflets that proclaim how bored you are. Open the window and wail, “I’m so bored!” the way you might wail the first time you find true love. Others will hear and realize that they’re bored, too, and they’ll start wailing and throwing coffee cups and sending bogus e-mails to their families and friends who get so bored from reading them. Maybe you’ll incite a riot, and that won’t be boring at all.

 

Would a poet make a good president?
— Penny C., Arlington, Virginia

YES! That is the best idea I’ve heard all day.

 

Lately, I don’t want to do anything.  I don’t want to eat tomatoes because I’m afraid I’ll get salmonella. I don’t even want to surf the Web because my eyes are getting worse.  And I won’t even mention why I don’t want to eat out.  The truth is, I’m afraid of death.
— Mary L., Portland, Oregon

As well you should be, Mary L. I, too, am scared of death. Death is irreversible, immense, and, in happy youth, its arrival is probably painful. Emily Dickinson observes a particularly terrifying thing about death:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by morning—
And untouched by noon—
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone—

Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them—
Worlds scoop their arcs—
And firmaments—row—
Diadems—drop—
Soundless as Dots,
On a disc of snow.

Because I don’t want to tread on shaky theological ground, I will simply use Dickinson’s notion of death, which can get quite extensive depending on what analytical lens you use. But this poem does not necessarily espouse atheism.  It simply observes the loss of objective physical interaction between the living and the dead.

When you die, and this is particularly threatening to a poet, you become “soundless.” In other words, you lose your voice in the living world (objectively speaking, unless you take measures now, while you’re alive…just keep reading). Now, maybe you live a long life, like Robert Frost (1874-1963), and you have had ample time to develop your talent and have written volumes of poems, some of which little girls memorize and recite at family gatherings. Robert Frost — the man, the body — is dead and can no longer voice his insights, but the little girl can vocalize Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion” in the living world.

On the other hand, maybe you live a short life, like…I don’t know, Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). I agree that he’s talented, but he just didn’t live long enough to write the perfect verse that everybody recites. When he’s read, he still has voice and some agency in the living world, but, unfortunately, not as much as Robert Frost.

If you’re afraid of death, afraid of becoming “soundless” in the living world, it seems the logical thing to do would be to live, to experience it all, and write about it, or tell stories all about your crazy life to your family at the dinner table, so that when you pass, others can voice your insights and give you agency in the living world: “Remember when Aunt Mary hitchhiked across Europe…” My grandpa died many years ago, and our family still enjoys his presence by retelling his jokes. When my grandmother passed just a few years after he did, we comforted ourselves with her stories, with her brilliant aphorisms that were so applicable to our daily lives.

But maybe you die young, while hitchhiking across Europe, and you never get to tell your story. No one knows that you got a tattoo of a flying circus monkey in Budapest. At least you’d die living, and living doesn’t mean not eating tomatoes or not surfing the Web, unless you’re deliberately denying yourself those things in the hopes of reaching a higher level of consciousness, which of course you’re not. You’re just scared, and I think Delmore Schwartz might comfort you: “And I remember that we who move/ Are moved by clouds that darken midnight.” The world is dark and sinister (be brave, Mary L.!) but so are we. • 22 September 2008

 

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.

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