Death As Muse Part One an essay by Stephanie Pope for
myth and poetry

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Death As Muse Pt. One
by stephanie pope
All eager-lipped I kissed the mouth of Death
-Gwendolyn Bennett

death playing violin
Back on December 11, 2003 an article in the on line journal Web MD by Daniel J DeNoon entitled “Death Stalks Poets” suggests verse writers die sooner than other writers. Naturally, this catches my attention.  Not two years earlier and also in December, I went live with making the decision ever after to make my work poetry and to make the writing of poetry central to my study of mythic image and  mythopoetic and archetypal expressionism in literature and in life. The article “Death Stalks Poets”, reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD for Web MD can be had here.

The on line article capitalizes on a study conducted by James C. Kaufman, PhD of California State University. The study appeared in the November, 2003 issue of Death Studies.  Kaufman’s data suggests of the four kinds of writers both male and female poets have the shortest lifespan. Kaufman uses biographical references that span millennia and four cultures while factoring in the increase in
.Death Playing the Violin To The Artist
.....................-Arnold Bocklin

lifespan. Kaufman then is asked why he thinks poets die sooner than other writers.

I find it interesting that the use of statistical mean, something that nowhere exists in actuality, and selective factoring, such as knowledge of the increase in life-span over time, does not also factor in its own biases as to where certain determinants are applied while others are not. Such implicit bias gets my dander up. (I’m thinking of dander as meaning ‘redundant’ as if some image the culture already has about poets wants to reinforce itself by repeating a representation of itself inexorably.)  When I decided to look at the relationship of poet and poetry to death, this image of death as a stalker stalking poets came back to me. So I thought I would begin this new essay series with some of my thoughts brought about by the older articulation.

A number of things come to mind for me just now upon re-reading this article. One thing has to do with an awareness first suggested by a man named Schiller. Schiller discovered there were two kinds of creative personality types. One type sacrifices their health and life in favor of or in behalf of the hard work that goes into and causes an achievement that evolves the creation of their art. Joseph Campbell once suggests James Joyce as an example of this kind of artist. The other type lives life well and writes out of the experiences of that wellness. Campbell suggests Goethe as an example of that kind of artist. If one looks with this knowledge applied, what then appears in the seeing? Will one be able to write as Mr. DeNoon did "Death is drawn more to poetry than any other writing?" I will return to this image shortly.

Another awareness I have jumped in as one of my conversation partners to remind me there is a distinction between "imaginary" and “imaginal” terminology that one must factor into this study. The distinction is something Coleridge works and I believe Henri Corbin does as well. There is a very real difference between imaginal life and imaginary life. The imaginary is fantasia. Lots of drug-rock artists (both of Schiller's types) got caught in it (and some kicked it and some died young) as did so much of the 60's generation. Nobody has ever mentioned anybody is looking at such differences nor compiling stats. Yet, I, for one, think it proper to factor in this particular distinction. It is one of my biases when looking over the birth/death stats now compiled just as Dr. Kaufman has applied his bias with the increase in life-span notion.

Imaginal looking is not the same thing as imaginary looking. Imaginal looking emphasizes the development of psychological depths. And this is an important distinction to be making if you are following the practice of living a creative lifestyle as am I. You had better get to know (and then learn how to manage) what is stimulating your own thrust as a poet.

Imaginal perspective deconstructs in its looking the psycho-logic being applied and psycho-poets the image in which it is grounded. The image Mr DeNoon writes into the blank white page just now links imagination, a legitimate faculty of mind, to mental (health) deficiency, disease and death as if imaginal logics were not as good as image-logics built from math/science reasonings. This is an old Cartesian idea (and not necessarily a good one.) It operates out of Descartes' insistence, ergo suma, I think and therefore THAT's the only credible part.

Death is drawn to poetics first. Poets die sooner. In imaginal senses, that's true. Poets die early to this old Cartesian split. But, there is an attempt just now to posit this "death" literally and based on the thinking of a statistical mean.

Personally, I cannot get over the mythologem showing up nor where it takes me. "All eager-lipped I kissed the mouth of Death;" Death… Poetry… Poet.

The poet in this instance, whose lines are meant to be taken literally, literally dies at the age of 79. You see the image is already at work in a decomposition of this redundancy-in-progress. Gwendolyn B. Bennett (1902-1981) is a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. During her lifetime she taught at Howard University.

Ms Bennett’s poetic relationship with imaginal "Death", that is, the Muse Death and how it speaks to her en poesis, takes the form of an image people are calling "nightwoman".  Just as night and woman is to death and woman so it is to Black and woman—Blackwoman!  "Nightwoman” is a poetics in which night and woman are rendered in terms of each other. Kali is such an image. Let’s none of us be so certain we know what and who has been slain where such an image begins speaking.

This particular "death" speaking through poetics birthed a renaissance. This "death" is a living symbol of psyche. Or IMAGE ITSELF IS LIVING PSYCHE AS LIVING SYMBOL. I don't think it has ever been shown that anyone dies early from that.

James Hillman gives seven qualifications to the notion of soul. One says these expressions are soulings referring to a deepening of the logics of mind and this is what actually turns events over into experiences of meaningful existence. Another says this power to inflect meaning via depth indeed comes from ITS SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP TO DEATH and soul itself is that imaginal possibility! Image is mind. If image is mind then Death's kiss and death as lover, muse, beloved is a soul-infusion. 

You will find a turning of Death as Muse in Joseph Campbell's "Transformation of Myths Through Time" p 204. It suggests how to turn such a thing. The passage says "Don't reread it in terms of past experiences." That's something Mr. DeNoon and Dr. Kaufman might consider. They might also keep in mind what Bachelard said about images. Images have no prior history. You cannot factor in an image past because there is none. What stalks poetry is that image of the relationship of poets to death. The image, 'poets die sooner' is the shadowy stalker. And what is shadowy here is a notion that wants to claim poets are suicidal kinds and poetic thoughts are hazardous to a healthy psyche whereas imaginal mind deadens thinking and endangers reason! James Hillman might say to this it is when we literalize the poetic image the move is suicidal. In other words, turning metaphor in a way that stands for something already known and points to something already here is poetic suicide. That kind of thinking is what it is not to think like a poet at all.

If you go gandering through Gwendolyn Bennett's structure of soul-values you will discover her psycho-logics are strong echoes of a long-standing argument among folk around 1929 that African America had soulful qualities badly needed by the hard and youthful, frenetic world of white (capitalist) mythology. Ms. Bennett brings forward in her art the image of 'soulful blackness'.  Black and soul is to Death and soul a renaissance. Such muse necessarily distinguishes itself as a death that by dying doesn't die but renews life and makes it worth living in a certain and specific way.

It goes on in a deepened aesthetic response to having lived and having expressed a living value deeply in art, as art…a poem. Moreover,  it acknowledges the image as poem writing itself into world rights that world with its aesthetic sacra. As much as this article wishes you to believe there is a reason why poets die young, there is also a reason why they don't.

If you wish more on Gwendolyn Bennett, her life and work see

The line quoted by Mr DeNoon comes from a poem published in The Poetry of Black America Anthology of 20thC Arnold Adoff, ed, 1973, Harper & Row. The poem is called "Sonnets". It follows.

Sonnets (1927)


He came in silvern armour, trimmed with black--

A lover come from legends long ago--

With silver spurs and silken plumes a-blow,

And flashing sword caught fast and buckled back

In a carven sheath of Tamarack.

He came with footsteps beautifully slow,

And spoke in voice meticulously low.

He came and Romance followed in his track . .


I did not ask his name--I thought him Love;

I did not care to see his hidden face.

All life seemed born in my intaken breath;

All thought seemed flown like some forgotten dove.

He bent to kiss and raised his visor's lace . . .

All eager-lipped I kissed the mouth of Death.




Some things are very dear to me--

Such things as flowers bathed by rain

Or patterns traced upon the sea

Or crocuses where snow has lain . . .

The iridescence of a gem,

The moon's cool opalescent light,

Azaleas and the scent of them,

And honeysuckles in the night.

And many sounds are also dear--

Like winds that sing among the trees

Or crickets calling from the weir

Or Negroes humming melodies.

But dearer far than all surmise

Are sudden tear-drops in your eyes


additional links

Part Two: The Midnight Kiss
Part Three: GOD, God & gods: The Sequel

Part Four: Dark Knight
mythopoetics mythopoesis
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