It wasn’t so much that he was posing–but that look he had on his face…
And his body posture.
At first blush, innocuous. Bland. Marginally detached.
Nothing to cause alarm or concern. It’s just a photograph promoting Whittaker’s EP.
But the thing got under my skin. In a low-grade BAD way. For days even.
The thing is, I couldn’t really put my finger on why it bothered me so much. It just made me go–ick.
And it wasn’t a dislike for Whittaker or his music. I knew that much. No, it went to the core of something else.
Something deeper. In my own being. Or our culture’s soul. Or both. I just didn’t know until the mystery started to unfold.
Disturbing Photographs of Disturbed Poets
I have a book on my shelf called Eight American Poets.
It’s a slim anthology on Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and James Merrill–poets who characterize the 20th century’s “second brilliant generation.”
[…the first generation being Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Hughes,Stevens, and Williams…]
On the cover–as you might suspect–are photographs of each poet…all of them, except Ginsberg, staring at you.
It’s disturbing on many levels.
First, human eyes staring at you are strange things indeed. Photographs of human eyes staring at you even more odd. Photographs of eyes staring at you that belong to dead people–haunting.
But photographs of human eyes staring at you that belonged to dead people who, when alive, led very creative, but disturbed lives takes the cake.
These are such photographs. And it doesn’t help that I’ve got history with these poets. Let me explain.
The Powerful Impact of Disturbed Poets
Long ago as a moody, half-cocked young poet I fell for Sylvia Plath. Adored Anne Sexton. Admired James Merrill. Cherished Theodore Roethke. Envied Robert Lowell. And idolized John Berryman.
The only poet who I spurned was Allen Ginsberg and that was due to his pedophilic tendencies.
But the others I’d canonized. Bizarre since these poets lived and died tragic lives.
Three of the poets killed themselves–Plath, Berryman and Sexton.
Lowell made a career out of writing candid poetry about his multiple mental hospitals admissions.
Bishop lived the life of a recluse with her lover in South America.
Theodore Roethke endured crippling episodes of depression.
And James Merrill, who painted a candid portrait of gay life in the early 1950s, lived modestly despite great personal wealth and eventually died in Arizona from AIDS complications.
You wonder why I–or anyone for that matter–invested so much hope and emotional capital into such people.
But here’s the deal: These troubling writers powerfully shaped my mind. And drug me to dark places I’d rather not go. Which brings us back to Whittaker.
What Does This Have to Do with Carlos Whittaker?
When it comes to romantic poetry and rock n roll both are at their best when they come from emotionally raw places says Craig Schuftan in his book Hey Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone.
Take the former Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan, for example. He said, ”And the more intense it was, the better, and we would probably have to suffer for that.”
Then there’s the British romantic poet George Gordon Byron who said about Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage–perhaps his best poem–”I was truly mad during its composition.”
[Note: Before Byron the notion that you had to suffer to create great art seemed ridiculous.]
Unfortunately, this notion is leaching into the Christian culture. Whittaker is but a mild example.
So my question to you is this: Is this the least bit healthy–regardless if you are a Christian or not? Furthermore, does it belong in the Christian community?
Or is this just anonther example of our incumbent narcissism rearing it’s ugly head and placing the focus on us rather than Christ?
Understand: I am one of those creative people. And I have a bent for suffering. But I’m not sure the focus should be placed on me or my pain.
I’m also reminded of Keith Green performing beneath his piano so people would focus on God and not him.
My irredeemable love of obscurity likes that. A lot.
So what do you think: Is this a zero-sum game? Or can we strike a balance? I look forward to your thoughts. Brutal and all.