Book Review: Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Reviewed by Elle Heedles

When this curious, biographical travel-journal debuted last February, it was met with mixed reviews. Where some critics found it a “good, clever, kindly and enjoyable book,” others were not as captured. Charming and anecdotal though it may be, there is an underlying sense that the two contemporary poets have bitten off more than they could chew, and that such a weighty undertaking does little justice to the poets whose lives and deaths are being unraveled. And they’ll be the first to admit it: “The only thing we can say with any certainty is that the designation ‘poet’ is never really fixed.”

Where some might dislike the use of the royal ‘we’ in the book, I would argue that it draws attention to exactly who this book might be for: a book about poets, written by poets. Perhaps the reason why I found these stories moving is because I have studied the works of each of these deceased poets. During three years as an English Literature student, every lecturer on the course has emphasized why the structure of the literary canon meanders as it does. And every lecturer makes it clear that no matter how desperately we want to look past the work of an author or poet, the life and biography of that human must stand independent of their work. What makes this book so compelling is that it entreats that curiosity that many devoted English Literature students have; the desire to delve into the livelihoods of these literary giants, and try to decode how a person could produce art that survives centuries of social, cultural, and political change. Indeed in their writing, Farley and Roberts often come across as naïve undergraduate students, eager to travel the world for the sights and scenes that saw their poetic heroes into their dog days.

It is understandable, then, that the poets often find themselves unable to sift through yet another archive, feeling as though they are intruding on a life that was meant to end at the funeral. But as the book unearths the lives and deaths of further poets—Romantic, contemporary, British, or American—there is a sense that not all deaths are created equal. The lingering question throughout the book is whether their vocation as poets immortalized them, or killed them too soon. And if the reader was looking for a firm answer to what happens when you decide you want to dedicate your life to writing poetry, I’m afraid the book does not offer a firm conclusion. Though society often romanticizes death and suffering in art, there are many poets and artists working equally as hard to debunk the myth. Farley and Roberts’s pilgrimage to the people and places that saw the end of some of the world’s most cherished poets provides enough information for the reader to decide for themselves, which party their poetic legacy will belong to.

I picked up this book on a whim. I was on my way home in the cold and rain after an evening spent drafting and redrafting poems that just wouldn’t work. I saw the title of the book and felt the pressure lift a little. There is something restorative about reading too much into the lives of the poets we love, travelling between oceans and landscapes to learn and respect the hardships of those who inspire us to keep up the good fight.

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