Detail from Herman Henstenburgh's, "Vanitas Still Life." From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When I announce that a visiting author is coming, my undergrads nearly drop the phones clutched in their laps, where they figure I can’t see them, and appear, for a fleeting moment, ecstatic. It must be a great lift to their spirits knowing that my monotonous autocracy will be interrupted, if only for one class. But it’s more than that. They’re elated at the opportunity to meet a living-and-breathing writer, one whose name is etched into the stone tablet of our syllabus. Their enthusiasm rarely stems from an affinity for any particular writer’s work, or even the prospect of rubbing elbows with literary celebrity. Rather, it’s exciting to them that any writer should live and breathe at all. An author’s visitation seems, in their eyes, a resurrection.

For those of us who teach creative writing, we know that contemporary writers exist. We read them; we discuss them; we are them. But for college students in a creative writing seminar—and indeed, for virtually all of American society—their literary education has focused almost exclusively on the work of the dead (typically male, and typically white). Despite the best efforts of many teachers to spotlight more contemporary writing, the reality is that most curricula—whether rightly or wrongly—prioritize Shakespeare and Faulkner over what’s written today. Students enter college conditioned to associate assigned works of literature with the past, and so even when they encounter something recent, they often wrongly presume that its author is long gone.

Poet and essayist Mary Ruefle, in her 2012 book, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, describes this experience firsthand:

I remember figuring out Djuna Barnes was alive and living in Greenwich Village when I was in college and for a long time afterward, and I could have gone and visited her, but I assumed the author of my most beloved book had died before I was born.

I remember repeating this mistake for years.

She goes on to say that, when she was younger, she “did not always know authors were ordinary people living ordinary lives.” Regarding one’s literary heroes with reverence is natural; we elevate them in our minds such that it’s hard to imagine them buying milk at the grocery store or waiting in line at the DMV. But it’s not just that we can’t conceive of them “living ordinary lives”—we struggle to think of them living at all. That Ruefle makes the same mistake many times, long after college, is curious. Why should this tendency persist? Is it the lingering effect of how literature is (mis)taught, or is there another reason why one’s first inclination is to attribute literary brilliance to the deceased?

In Ruefle’s estimation, whether an author is alive or dead not only shapes our interpretation of their work, but seemingly the work itself:

John Ashbery and Billy Collins can’t teach you a thing, for the simple fact that they are living. Why is that, I wondered. I mean I really wondered. I think it is because poets are people—no matter what camp they sleep in—who are obsessed with the one thing no one knows anything about. That would be death. They talk to the dead and have a rapport with the dead and write about death as if they had done it, which is utterly ridiculous because they are not dead and never have been and cannot teach us a single thing about death and being dead. And yet—here’s the weird thing—THE MINUTE THEY BECOME DEAD THEY CAN TEACH US EVERYTHING. Why, why is that? I think it’s because the minute they are dead all of their poems about death become poems about being alive. And we are alive and can be taught something about that.

To state the obvious: an author’s work remains unchanged upon the death of its author. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is still the same, even with Ashbery’s recent passing. And yet, according to Ruefle’s logic, Ashbery’s lyrics can now achieve something that Collins’s—and all living poets’—can’t. It’s as if his work has been reborn: the poems come fully alive once the poet is out of the picture.

Is Ruefle’s notion an original one? Or a new twist on old literary theory? In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes famously declared that a writer’s biography is irrelevant to a given text’s meaning; a poem, he wrote, “is detached from the author at birth.” Ruefle is making a different but related claim. While Barthes uses death metaphorically to describe authorial insignificance, Ruefle suggests that literal death is what gives an author’s writing its enlightened quality.

This impulse to elevate the work of dead authors seems, at least in part, a nostalgic one. We lionize writers who have passed not only in the spirit of eulogizing them, but because often they’re the ones we most fondly remember reading in our youth. We also value more highly an author’s work when the supply is finite. And, of course, death adds its own air of intrigue. (There’s a reason it’s the Dead Poets Society.) Still, Ruefle’s claim isn’t about popularity but potency. Death as the ultimate revision.

Is her reasoning persuasive? I’m not sure, but I find it attractive. It’s cool to think about works of literature enjoying a kind of afterlife, free from their meddling makers; about poems rising triumphantly from the ashes of poets. Still, isn’t this the same logic that leads us to devalue authors while they’re alive? Is it true that we have little to learn from living-and-breathing poets? Had Ruefle sent Djuna Barnes a letter, or knocked on her door, how might the avant-garde poet-novelist-artist have responded?

Interestingly, Ruefle reserves her highest praise not for dead poets, but young ones. “Poetry,” she writes, “is, in so many ways—and I am not the first to say it—a young person’s genre.” She continues: “If poetry was dependent on the past, there would be no such thing as young poets, and thank god there are and thank god they stupefy us.” It’s true, of course, that some of poetry’s most venerated figures are both young and dead: Keats, who died at 25, comes to mind. But I don’t think Ruefle is referencing him here, or any past poet. Instead, she’s talking about the exhilaration that comes from discovering a fresh and vital voice, one that’s full of “desire and longing without fulfillment,” enthralling with its “attendant energy.”

I’ve seen it with my own eyes. When any writer—but particularly a young writer—steps into my classroom, my students transform. They lean forward in their seats, as if readying for a leap into open water. Who could believe, their glances say, that writers still exist in this day and age? On the one hand, the visiting author seems a relic; on the other, a harbinger of a new way of being, one my students hadn’t really understood was possible. They listen with rapt attention and craft thoughtful questions and forget for a few minutes about their blinking phones.

It’s truly a miracle.

Ben Purkert

Ben Purkert’s poems and essays appear in The New Yorker, Tin House Online, Agni, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. His debut poetry collection, For The Love Of Endings, is coming out March 2018 from Four Way Books. He’s also at work on a novel.

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