Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What does it take to kill a writer?

That's a post over at The Electronic Girl talking about how, in fiction at least, there's a sense that it's easy to lose writers of great books to the memory of their movies. She uses as her primary example James Leo Herlihy, best known as the author of Midnight Cowboy. But he's unknown, you say? That's precisely the point--the movie made of his book is a classic, and the book, as usual, is even better, but how many people even know who he was?

That's less an issue in poetry, because it's rare that a poet even gets a biopic, much less an option on a poem for a screenplay. It's also less an issue because there are fewer roads to stardom via poetry. When teaching my contemporary poetry class last night, I mentioned that, sadly, Billy Collins is about as close to rock-stardom as poets get--and you have to admit that that's pretty sad--and of the 20 people in the class, 3 knew who he was, and that's because they'd been in a class with me before and had heard this schtick. Who will be the big names that come out of this period, the late 20th century, early 21st century? And who will be those who Miller Williams wrote about in his poem "A Note to the English Poets of the Seventeenth Century," where he said:
You've lost the ones that were hopelessly only good,
saying things that nobody else could say
and lucky to be heard in their own day.
Williams will likely be in that bunch, along with Collins and so many others. It's tiring for me, at the beginning of my career, to think of things like immortality in my lines of poetry--I can't imagine what it must be like once you've had a career and started to see it wind down a bit. And for those who have tasted fame like Herlihy, how badly that drop must have hurt.

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