Archive for December, 2012


Sometimes a Young Poet is Just Another Young Man Snared in the Agony of Love

December 27, 2012
"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

Last night I read a short essay on the poet John Keats. The essayist begins by stating the obvious–that is, something anyone reading the essay would know: that “Keats did not finish his career.”He adds that “No issue is more significant, in closing the book on Keats’ life as poet, than choosing a poem to conclude.” Really? Nothing about Keats is more significant about Keats that a “final poem”? I wonder.

After what I interpret as some factitious equivocation, the essayist chooses “This Living Hand”  to be the “final poem.” It is, granted, a mysterious poem, “a fragment without a name.” The lines were jotted down in the manuscript of another poem. The question seems to be–the right one it seems to me–what the poem meant to Keats? What was its genesis? To whom was the poem written–or was it, as some say, words out of the mouth of some character Keats planned in another work, a play, some scholars suggest? Nobody  knows for sure, but I, like the essayist, can guess, and my guess is different from his. Here’s the poem:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it toward you–

The writer of the essay says the poem “fails” if it is read through Fanny Brawne’s eyes: “its tone becomes bullying and painful, its mixture of horror and pathos appears too selfish to carry a message of love.” The poem read this way is repellent: we “draw away” from it. The essayist prefers to think of the poem as a “gift” to the reader: And insofar as it is qualifies as such a poem, it offers only the dimmest hope for poetic survival. By investing his hope in the reader’s conscience, not in his own imperishable work. . . Keats resigns his fate to strangers. At best he must trust our ‘wish.'”

In other words, the poem is written by a death-doomed Keats, a dying young man aware, too aware, of his fleeting mortality, and he cries out to the reader to remember him.

Well, in the words of the sardonic Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” If one, for example, looks at some of Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne, one doesn’t find a bright young poet, his sails plumped with sweet winds of restraint and beauty: one finds a petulant and jealous young man, one who wonders painfully if “his girl” is bestowing intimacies on some other man. Why would we resist the notion of Keats being a young man in love, torn with all the vexations a star-crossed affair can bring? After all, he was dying, and he knew he was dying–and he was heartsick about it. On his death bed, he asked that his friends not speak of Fanny. Any mention of her, he said, went through him like a spear. I don’t know why the critic would deny to the young man Keats that which he, the critic, would freely admit about himself when young. Poets, no matter how great, can be foolish about women, foolish about many things. Didn’t Auden forgive Yeats for the dead poet’s silliness? Can’t we forgive Keats for crying to Fanny, “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone”? It could be, too, that if by some miracle Keats had lived, worn into old age, he would have, later in his life, dismissed the poem in question, smiled at his youthful effusions.

I don’t know for sure. Who does? The essayist may be right about Keats. I, however, don’t think any less of Keats if this poem was written about Fanny Brawne, don’t find it hectoring in the extreme, bullying, repellent; and I can’t believe–every sinew and fiber of my imagination, everything I know from experience–the lines, just these few written in a manuscript, are from some play Keats planned to write. Mind you, they might have been. No one knows for sure, but my heart tells me the lines were self-indulgent. I don’t mean necessarily in a pejorative way, only in that Keats wrote the poem in response to the emotional turmoil stirred within him by his relationship with Fanny Brawne. And, contra the essayist, I believe that did Fanny read the poem she would have immediately seen the love in the poem. She would have, I think, understood the poem. I can’t imagine her thinking, “How selfish he is.” She would have discerned the passion in the poem, one born out of confusion and despair and yearning–but not a passion burdened and fettered by selfishness.


Shooting into the Dark

December 20, 2012
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

We are meaning-making creatures, and when a disaster appears utterly senseless to us, it intensifies the anguish. This has been true of the rampage in Connecticut, where school children have been murdered by a young man whose motives are as yet unfathomable as death itself.

According to one study, about half of rampage killers have a history of mental illness that society would not or could not treat.[1] Overtaken by paranoid delusions, they may believe that the world and self are collapsing. In reaction, they look to violence to destroy the threat. Since the threat is a mix of psychic turmoil and available cultural themes, the choice of tactics and victims may mix tortured logic and happenstance. But while explosive anger can be a symptom, many rampage killers such as Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, make elaborate plans and present coherent, if criminal, motives.

Jared Loughner, notorious for a massacre that gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Gifford in 2011, became convinced that the government is sinister and, without a gold standard, debasing the currency. He feared that like paper money, words are artificial and losing their meaning. To friends he described the way dreaming and waking were blurring together in his mind.

These are psychotic fears that reality is dissolving. Yet denial keeps us from recognizing that these symptoms are also distorted versions of widely held beliefs. Government and business constantly subvert words—we call it “spin.”  In the financial press “goldbugs” take for granted that the government is deliberately cheapening the dollar to dilute Federal debt. And as the movies and pop song lyrics remind us, life always has dreamlike qualities.

Like Adam Lanza in Connecticut, some berserkers are described as shy or withdrawn. The terms acknowledge not only an inability to bond with others, as in autism, but also the intensified demands of an inner world. Beset by delusions, unemployed and adrift, with a darkening future, Jared Loughner faced social death. Running amok, he was trying to prove his own reality: that he was alive. That he mattered. If your early childhood sense of “what is right” begins to collapse and you feel totally alone and cornered, then godlike power over life and death may seem like the only way to concentrate your self. James Holmes opened fire in a Colorado movie theater screening a Batman fantasy of superhuman, violent righteousness.

Like an infantile superhero movie, violence “purifies” ambivalence and confusion. The moment of violent action explodes description. For an instant all conflicts, history, and the future are annihilated. The process can be seen as suicidal oblivion or heroic transcendence, as in the religious mania of the 9/11 terrorists. Many berserkers, including Adam Lanza, kill themselves after the spasm is past, when momentary oblivion begins to reveal real-world consequences.

Berserkers are usually male and draw on ancient male cultural themes of warrior heroism, the hunt, and patriarchal rescue or punishment. Stress and incoherence can confuse or mask the themes, and overriding neurological pressures may make them opportunistic, but almost always they shape rampage behavior. Adam Lanza wore military garb, and about half of rampage killers have had military training. The Columbine killers played out military models. As in military fantasy, the alluring role is Rambo-style solo heroism with assault weapons. Jared Loughner tried to substantiate his unraveling identity by posing for photos in a G-string with 9-mm bullets tattoed on his back and a pistol on his hip. You could say he stripped off his troubled everyday self, trying to become a fantasy hero. The photos show either an avenging Rambo saving the world or a lost soul acting tough. Posing, tattoed with bullets, Loughner was making himself a weapon. No more conflicts, no more fears. Just pure force. I am a bullet. Superhuman. The power of his fantasy showed up after his assault, when people rushed to buy guns. It is the same fantasy that the NRA rationalizes for gun owners.

In effect, firearms are the most obvious—and in the US, available—means of pumping up the self. From Hollywood westerns to paramilitary police headlines, the gun settles conflicts. “Going postal,” a “terminated” employee counters the fear of social death by pumping up intoxicating rage.

Social death means no future: no intimate bonds to substantiate you, no seeking, no story. While we can only speculate, this may help to explain attacks on children. We grow up in school, among others who reflect who we are and want to be. To feel isolated and rejected for whatever reasons—neurology, “temperament,” social prejudice—could spur a lasting urge for revenge: to “wipe out” a sickening memory. By some reports Adam Lanza had to be home-schooled when he didn’t get along with others in primary school. One of the Columbine killers was pitifully depressed, the other gripped by arrogant fury, but both died to destroy a school.

A killer may be attacking the oppressive ideal child he couldn’t be. The violence may be trying to obliterate the child at the core of his own personality whose disintegration in illness feels terrifying and demands emergency action. More poignantly, other people’s children can represent the love, hope, and happiness of the family that the killer despairs of ever enjoying. In the most basic way, children dramatize unlimited life before social pressure and adult roles constrict it. Childhood is posterity, remote from death, close to fantasies of immortality. A target of doomed envy.

And so a despairing father “sacrifices” his own children, perhaps for revenge against an alienated spouse. Even the fanatical Norwegian ideologue Anders Behring Breivik, who imagined he was saving Europe from Islam, slaughtered happy children at a summer camp.

Breivik could remind us of another dimension to the behavior: his plan was a hunt. As in our evolutionary past, warfare, or in some video games today, rampage killers frequently act like hunters. And like all predators, hunters prefer the young as victims because they are easier and less dangerous to kill in numbers. If the goal is a world-gripping record kill, few transgressions can match the slaughter of children.

This brings us to the problem of berserk behavior as a cultural style. Granted someone’s potential for rage, why does it so often follow the same gun-slinging scenario? One answer is that virtually every rampage killing has a copycat element to it. Nobody, homicidal or not, can be completely spontaneous. American culture has elaborately modeled rampage behavior in news, entertainment, and lore, where self-abandon is associated with “breakthrough” performance and “going for it.”

Like the hunt, combat, and sport, rampage killing is a competition for “star”-dom: for the godlike power to hold the world in terrified thrall. In this sense the concentration on glory or infamy can be intoxicating. Defying a lifetime of inhibitions and laws, the ecstatic killer is “beside” himself. If you fear that the ground of your personality is disintegrating, you can dream that the world’s attention will make you feel real. If you die in the attack, better to go out in a blaze of glory than to sink alone into terrified, helpless madness.

We like to think that sanity and the mad murderer are tidy categories, and that the culture has effective ways of treating them. But a school massacre says this isn’t true, which is one reason why Americans keep lethal weapons under the pillow, despite all the proven dangers they pose. This is one way of understanding why audiences are drawn to rant broadcasting for invigorating doses of outrage. Like the would-be rampage killer’s seething, a daily dose of anger can relieve depression and anxiety, converting flight into fight and feelgood indignation.  Some rampage killers have acknowledged the influence of rant media. Why should it surprise us? Listeners are hearing disembodied voices in the air that urge them to heroic outrage against enemies.

The point is not that we’re all rampage killers. But under stress, feeling cornered, some of us will use the ideas and passions around us to make a story we can act on. Adam Lanza’s mother was a “gun enthusiast” in an area of gun enthusiasts, and he used her weapons to make her his first victim.[2] Her former sister-in-law, Marsha Lanza, told reporters that Nancy was part of the Doomsday Preppers movement, whose members believe they need to prepare for the end of the world. She had a survivalist mentality and had turned her home “into a fortress.”[3] You could be excused for wondering if Adam Lanza might have been able to resist the plunge into violence if he wasn’t living in an arsenal, with a mother whose anxieties played out as survivalist ideas.

In a television interview a few days after the massacre a Texas politician called for more guns. If the young woman principal of the school had been armed, he fantasized to a national audience, she could have “taken out” the killer. It’s Batman as national policy.

And you could be excused for thinking that reducing stress would be a better cultural ethos than survival-of-the-fittest “creative destruction” and trigger-finger heroics. In an underemployed nation that’s stripped down to its G-string at home while paying for history’s most extravagant weapons, there are healthier policies than shooting into the dark because you heard a noise.


1. Laurie Goodstein and William Glaberson, “The Well-Marked Road to Homicidal Rage,” New York Times (April 10, 2000).

2. Matt Flegenheimer, “A Mother,a Gun Enthusiast and the First Victim,” New York Times (December 15, 2013).

3. Caroline Bankoff, “Newtown Shooter Adam Lanza;s Mother was an Avid Gun Collector,” New York (December 15, 2013).

For more context, see “The New Rampage Mentality” here and Berserk Style in American Culture. The most insightful study of how the terror of death begets viuolence is Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil.