Saturday, August 15, 2009

On Obits, Elegies, and Thomas M. Disch

Most likely anyone who reads this blog knows that gay and lesbian youth are at least four times more likely to kill themselves than their heterosexual counterparts. But what isn’t talked about, or at least mentioned much less, is that elderly homosexual men also share a greater probability of taking their own lives.

I think of the fairly recent suicide of Thomas M. Disch, a solid poet, who committed suicide sometime after his partner Charles Naylor died. Disch wrote many, many books. Anyone can see he has an eclectic output: realistic fiction, children's fiction and historical fiction; opera liberettos and plays; criticism of art, theatre, and fim; and even a video game. Science fiction is no doubt what he will be known mostly form. He's considered one of the key practitioners of speculative science-fiction.

I have been looking at the elegies and obituaries written for him after his death, and have become interested in how we read the poetry of someone who has died recently, and the ethics behind those readings.

Although it has been over a year ago, I can still remember my immediate reaction when I heard that Disch killed himself: he didn't have enough of a support system. This lack causes much mental illness in elderly gay men. It's not necessarily fair to create a cause-effect relationship. Predictably, most of the write-ups make this pathological explanation without any reservations or qualifying statements.

There are two articles that I (and another poet) found that resist this notion. The first is written by Sam J. Miller from Strange Horizons. It intelligently recognizes the danger in claims that simply one factor contributed to his suicide. He lists five reasons: the fear of extinction, the loneliness, the homophobic, milieu, the perceived lack of critical and popular attention, and Thomas M. Disch himself.

This is the link to the wise article:

Strange Horizons Articles: Who Killed Thomas M. Disch

I'd like to name another one not explicitly mentioned in the article: our collective failure to provide concrete resources to elderly gay men. Even if Proposition 8 passed, it would not have dealt with the intersection of old age and sexuality.

To locate suicidal depression simply in Disch's psyche ignores the larger issue: where do old gay men, often estranged by their family, go for support, love once their beloved dies? Also: bars were often once a safe heaven for these elderly gay men. But when you're older, dealing with the unattractiveness of old age, the bars, aimed toward youth, cause one to feel further marginalized.

Here’s the second piece of writing that subverts the simple claim that the poet killed himself simply as a result of his lover's death. It was written by Elizabeth Hand; it appeared in the more popular on-line magazine Salon:

Notice Hand doesn’t even mention the death of Disch's partner Naylor until the fifth paragraph. When Hand first refers to Naylor, it's an admission she wishes she had spent more time around the couple. By organizing her essay in this way, she exhibits a refusal to sensationalize. This writerly choice also stands out from the crowd of other obituaries, prosaic elegies.


One of my ex-best friends taught a poetry course. As a poet herself, she wanted to explain the dangers of pathologizing writers. She asked me to make a list of poets, like Disch, who recently, in the past half dozen years or so, committed suicide. I did that. She then went to the library and Xeroxed what she deemed as their saddest poems.

Without telling her class were victims of suicide, they analyzed the poems. She said, “Do these poets seem abnormally depressed?”

Uniformly, they said no. “That’s how poets are supposed to be,” they said, “They’re always sad."

She then told them that all the authors committed suicide.

There was a pause, and then they again scanned the poems and said, “Yeah. Actually, it is pretty obvious. There’s no way we should have missed it.”


Is there a difference between an obituary and an elegy?

Is it simply that an obituary is prose and an elegy poetry?

Can you define an obituary as a wholly flattened declaration of grief, and an elegy as an exclamation of it?

Does a suicidally depressed poem begin doubting that his creative writing can act as a catharsis, warding off negative feelings? And at the moment of suicidal despair does he see his words as an obituary, or if his mind is racing, an elegy?


This is the one thing a heterosexual should not say to a gay male poet says when he admits sadness about childlessness: “Your book is your baby.”

Disch wrote a lot of books. He killed himself. He didn’t have a baby.

How unkind is it to draw any links between the preceding facts?


“Do you think prose writers are characteristically more suicidal than poets?” my friend asked me.

I didn’t know. I am a fairly happy person.

“Maybe,” my friend said, “Unlike prose writers, poets always know the possibility of disappearing in the white space on the page.”


Is The Critic anything more than a self-appointed physician of “dead” texts? Don’t physicians typically see themselves –in some way- as God, as someone capable of bringing the dead back to life? Are poems brought back to life (in other words: inclusion into a canon) as a result of divine intervention or the mind of a mortal? Or is a miracle just an accident that we happen to like?


Untouched, unharmed here is a later poem (found on Poetry Daily) by Tom Disch’s entitled “Ghost Ship”:

There must be many other such derelicts—
orphaned, abandoned, adrift for whatever reason—
but few have kept flying before the winds
of cyberspace so briskly as Drunk Driver
(the name of the site). Anonymous (the author)
signed his last entry years ago, and more years passed
before the Comments began to accrete
like barnacles on the hull of a ship
and then in ever-bifurcating chains
on each other. The old hulk became
the refuge of a certain shy sort
of visitor, like those trucks along the waterfront
haunted by lonely souls who could not bear
eyewitness encounters. They could leave
their missives in the crevices of this latter-day
Wailing Wall, returning at intervals
to see if someone had replied, clicking
their way down from the original message

April 18. Another gray day. Can't find the energy
to get the laundry down to the laundry room.
The sciatica just won't go away.

through the meanders and branchings
of the encrusted messages, the tenders
of love for a beloved who would never know herself
to have been desired, the cries of despair,
the silly whimsies and failed jokes, to where
the thread had last been snapped,
only to discover that no, no one had answered
the question posed. Because,
no doubt, there was no answer.
Is there an "answer" to the war
wherever the latest war is going on?
If one could get under the ship
and see all those barnacles clinging
to the keel, what a sight it would be.
Talk about biodiversity! But on deck,
so sad, always the same three skeletons,
the playing card nailed to the mast,
frayed and fluttering weakly, like some huge insect
the gods will not allow to die.


  1. There's an idea in quantum physics that observing a phenomenon determines its outcome. The primary example used is light. When observed for behavior as a particle, light behaves as a particle. When observed for behavior as a wave, it behaves like a wave. There's no logical reason for this.

    It might be that poets commit suicide because they are poets. It's certain to be true when you look at poets who have committed suicide and say, "Many poets commit suicide." When you look at the number of poets who do not commit suicide, even though it would be a much larger number, it doesn't seem as relevant. Too, this doesn't consider the number of people who write poetry but do not self-identify as poets, or the number of poets who have not yet published significantly to be identified by others as a "poet."

    Maybe a lot of stock brokers commit suicide too, I don't know. A lot of kindergarten teachers. A lot of Danish people.

    Perhaps if poets seem depressed, it's because we have an innate understanding of what a disappointment this world can be.

    I don't think many suicidal people write poems, though. I think the urge to suicide--to annihilate--is the opposite of the urge to create and to understand, to reconcile.

    I think of Schrödinger's Cat when this topic comes up. The cat isn't alive or dead until you open the box and look.

  2. Hi Charles,

    Your comments are great. I challenge one of them, but