Did Kurt Cobain die because he misread a poem?
Kurt Cobain was a tenth-grade dropout who bitterly regretted his truncated education. Yet he was a scholar in his weird way, and not just of obscure B-sides. As he noted in his journals, “When I read, I read well.” Cobain’s poetic mentor was Courtney Love, the fitfully bookish granddaughter of novelist Paula Fox (ranked higher than Bellow, Roth, and Updike by Jonathan Franzen).
He was attracted by Wylie’s doomy voice, scandalous life, and young death by stroke the day after she finished her last book. He would have loved a Wylie line like “My flesh was but a fresh-embroidered shroud,” and these quatrains, about a hero who fled humanity to live in a cave:
If you would keep your soul
From spotted sight or sound,
Live like the velvet mole;
Go burrow underground.
And there hold intercourse
With roots of trees and stones,
With rivers at their source,
And disembodied bones.
But Cobain didn’t read with an open mind. He sought what resonated with his fiercely puritanical disenchantment, and with his plan to get rich and famous “and kill myself like Jimi Hendrix,” which he announced to at least seven friends in junior high school.
We can study his poetical imagination at work by reading the only poem in his published journals, “A Young Woman, a Tree,” by award-winning poet Alicia Ostriker. Cobain’s response to Ostriker’s poem demonstrates that he died by a willful act of misreading.
On page 204 of his journals, he incorporated “A Young Woman, a Tree” into a drawing. It was a page so painfully revealing that reviewers were forbidden to reprint it, presumably on Love’s orders. Cobain took a comic-book version of his life story, tore out the cartoon portrait of his head heroically shrieking his number-one lyric “Here we are now, entertain us,” and drew onto it a rather good expressionist sketch of his emaciated body. The drawing is meant to contrast the muscular comic-book superhero head—the public myth—with the shabby private reality of what he called his “Auschwitz” body, which shamed him.
Above the drawing, he clipped six lines from Ostriker. The girl in the poem envies a tree, whose explosion of fall color makes her own life feel pallid:
Passing that fiery tree—if only she could
Be making love,
Be making poetry,
Be exploding, be speeding through the universe
Like a photon, like a shower
Of yellow blazes—
Cobain places these lines above his self-portrait, which seems to represent a painful absence of creative energy. Ostriker tells me that this is her subject, too. “The poem is from the point of view of a girl who wants to live more intensely than she is doing.” But Cobain stops there, missing the ultimate point of the poem, which is one of endurance. The poem continues:
She believes if she could only overtake
The riding rhythm of things,
Of her own electrons,
Then she would be at rest
If she could forget school,
Climb the tree,
Be the tree,
Burn like that.
So far, Ostriker sounds the same yearning note that Cobain does elsewhere in the journals: “I used to have so much energy and the need to search for miles and weeks for anything new and different. Excitement. I was once a magnet for attracting new offbeat personalities who would introduce me to music and books of the obscure and I would soak it into my system like a rabid sex crazed junkie hyperactive mentally retarded toddler who’s just had her first taste of sugar.” If he didn’t get his idea fix, he got suicidal. When he sought refuge from despair in the creative process, it was a process very like suicidal sehnsucht.
But as the poem continues, the girl lives to learn the true lesson of creativity:
She doesn’t know yet, how could she
That this same need
Is going to erupt every September
And that in 40 years the idea will strike her
From no apparent source,
In a Laundromat
Between a washer and a dryer,
Like one of those electric light bulbs
Lighting up near a character’s head in a comic strip—
There in that naked and soiled place
With its detergent machines,
Its speckled fluorescent lights,
Its lint piles broomed into corners as she fumbles for quarters
And dimes, she will start to chuckle and double over
Into the plastic baskets’
Mountain of wet
Bedsheets and bulky overalls—
Old lady! She’ll grin,
beguiled at herself,
Old lady! The desire to burn is already a burning! How about that!
Maybe Cobain would never have been able to read the redemptive message of the poem. His imagination was all about the moment of explosiveness, not the wisdom of reflection. He felt he had exhausted all creative possibilities: if you think his posthumously released tune “You Know You’re Right” sounds like the same old formula, he felt the same way. In his journals, he sarcastically envisions Nirvana as a washed-up oldies act.
But his biochemistry made him believe from the start that all hope was exhausted before he was born. He writes in his early journals that it’s all been done, there’s no point in music, and yet “it’s still fun to pretend” that his generation could find a living music of its own. As the forbidden page shows, he no longer had the spirit to keep up the pretense. He could not see that his restless questing, his gnawing hunger to create, and his ability to pour that frustration into art was in itself potentially his deepest gift.
“What I wonder is where Cobain would have gotten to if he’d survived,” wrote Ostriker in a recent e-mail. “We are so drawn to the ones who burn out early—some sort of compelling romanticism about death fascinates us—the Cobain cult seems to me very much like the cult of Sylvia Plath as a poet. Passion and power as artists, tangled in poisonous self-contempt, contempt for the world, two sides of the same coin. Here are some lines of Plath’s, from the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
“If there’s an afterlife,” writes Ostriker, “I can picture Plath and Cobain prowling through it together.”