5 Posthumous Gods of Literature; and, How to Become One

There have been many poets and authors who — for various reasons — never attracted a fandom while alive, but who came to be considered among the greats of literature in death. Here are a few examples whose stories I find particularly intriguing.



by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

5.) William Blake: Blake sold fewer than 30 copies of his poetic masterpiece Songs of Innocence and Experience while alive. He was known to rub people the wrong way and didn’t fit in to society well. He was widely considered insane, but at a minimum he was not much for falling in with societal norms. (He probably was insane, but cutting against the grain of societal expectations has historically often been mistaken for insanity.)  While he was a religious man (mystically inclined,) he’s also said to have been an early proponent of the free love movement. His views, which today might be called progressive, probably didn’t help him gain a following.



4.) Mikhail Bulgakov: Not only was Bulgakov’s brilliant novel, The Master & Margarita, banned during his lifetime, he had a number of his plays banned as well. What I found most intriguing about his story is that the ballsy author personally wrote Stalin and asked the dictator to allow him emigrate since the Soviet Union couldn’t find use for him as a writer. And he lived to tell about it (though he didn’t leave but did get a small job writing for a little theater.) Clearly, Stalin was a fan — even though the ruler wouldn’t let Bulgakov’s best work see the light of day.



3.) John Kennedy Toole: After accumulating rejections for his hilarious (and posthumously Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole committed suicide. After his death, Toole’s mother shopped the draft around and brow-beat Walker Percy into reading it, which ultimately resulted in it being published.



2.) Emily Dickinson: Fewer than 12 of Dickinson’s 1800+ poems were published during her lifetime. Dickinson is the quintessential hermitic artist. Not only wasn’t she out publicizing her work, she didn’t particularly care to see those who came to visit her.



1.) Franz Kafka: Kafka left his unpublished novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, as well as other works in a trunk, and told his good friend Max Brod to burn it all. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your definition of a good friend), Brod ignored the instruction and the works were posthumously published.



In brief summary, here are the five ways to become a posthumous god of literature:

5.) Be seen as a lunatic / weirdo.

4.) Live under an authoritarian regime.

3.) Handle rejection poorly, lack patience, and / or fail to get help.

2.) Don’t go outside.

1.) Wink at the end of the sentence when you tell your best friend to burn all your work.

POEM: You’re Killing Me, Ms. Dickinson, or: Samurai Surgery


“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”    – Emily Dickinson

 

It’s mean accuracy and angry power that can cleave the top off a head;
neither merely scalping the reader,
nor decapitating him.

Popping the top to blow the mind is samurai surgery.
Some lines tink against the forehead like a dull knife,
while others — with razor-sharpness — succeed only in shearing an unsightly bald spot.

The fabled Taoist butcher could cleanly slice between the bone ends,
never dulling his cleaver,
but that’s not much help for one seeking to take off the top of a head…

or is it?

POEM: If I Was…

Edgar Allan Poe

If I was as Mad as Poe,
could I summon the Raven?

 

If I was as radical as Blake,
could I build myself a tyger?

 

If I was as shut-in as Dickinson
could I be Nobody, too?

 

If I was as doomed as Radnóti,
could I pen my elegy on a death march?

William Blake





Emily Dickinson





Miklós Radnóti

BOOK REVIEW: Poems: Three Series, Complete by Emily Dickinson

Poems: Three Series, CompletePoems: Three Series, Complete by Emily Dickinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Three series are collected into one volume. Each series is organized into four parts: Life, Love, Nature, and Time & Eternity. The connection between these themes and the verse contained therein is generally clear, and the latter category is largely concerned with death—a popular topic for Dickinson. While Dickinson is known for being morose, her poems often manage to be both playful and dark at the same time. The best example of this odd combo of grim / playfulness may be one of her most quoted poems, The Chariot.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ‘t is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than a day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

Dickinson’s life story is well-known, at least in broad brushstrokes. She was a 19th century poet who was introverted in the extreme, and eventually became an outright recluse. According to her own words, she didn’t take up writing poetry until she was in her 30s. This existence was facilitated by the fact that she was from a well-to-do family and had no pressing need of a husband or an income.

Dickinson’s introverted nature is touched on throughout her work, and no doubt contributes to her appeal among those similarly afflicted. The opening poem of the Second Series, another of Dickinson’s most famous, speaks to this aspect of her personality.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us! Don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog.

I enjoy Dickinson’s work, but it’s the playful nature, rather than the macabre, that appeals to me. This is accomplished by short lines, use of rhyme, or at least slant rhyme, that makes the poems melodious to the ear. I’m fond of lines such as:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed



God permits industrious angels
Afternoons to play



Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul



Faith is a fine invention
For gentlemen who see;
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency!



A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.



There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,



You cannot fold a flood
And put it in a drawer,–
Because the winds would find it out,
And tell your cedar floor.



He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees,



Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.



For we must ride to the Judgement,
And it’s partly down hill.



While simple-hearted neighbors
Chat of the ‘early dead,’
We, prone to periphrasis,
Remark that birds have fled!



And if my stocking hung too high,
Would it blur the Christmas glee,
That not a Santa Claus could reach
The altitude of me?



This Kindle version is readable. A common complaint about good books, particularly those that are cheap or free, is that the Kindle formatting detracts from the reading experience. That is not the case here. There is a first line index at the back. This is useful as most of the poems don’t have titles, and Dickinson’s first lines are often attention grabbers.

I’d recommend this for poetry readers.

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