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 Franz Kafka: Kafka left his unpublished novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, as well as other works in a trunk, and told his good friend Max Brod to burn it all.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: 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

5 Ways in Which Poets Are Mistaken for the Insane

“He’s right behind me, isn’t he?”


5.) Sound Seeking:
If anything  looks more insane than walking down the street talking to oneself out loud, it’s talking to oneself out loud in rhyme and alliteration in a disjoint fashion while counting off beats on one’s fingers.

 

4.) Emotion Evocation: If your writing comes across as a cry for help, you may be a deeply troubled individual. Or you may be a poet trying to induce a reader to feel.

 

3.) Clarity & Codes: Because there may be no literal meaning to your verse, the reader may suspect that you’re writing in code to your imaginary pink bunny rabbit. Faced with the humbling possibility that he or she may “just not get it,” most people prefer the alternative explanation that you’re a rambling lunatic.

 

2.) Playing the Odds: Let’s be honest, there have been a lot of poets who slipped into the abyss. Poe, Pushkin, Plath, Pound, and several poets whose last names didn’t begin with the letter “P,” were all afflicted by mental illness.

 

1.) Violent Reactions to being Interrupted:  A poem under development is a house of cards that needs only the subtlest gust of wind to be obliterated. Poems in the works are gauzy and fragile. So, as one is trying to wedge words together into a solid construct, one is occasionally interrupted. When this happens, one may instinctively pimp slap the interrupting individual like a Zen master trying to make the point that there is no point.