Thursday, August 16, 2007


Another great artist has passed.

Liam was only fifty-seven, an age that seems young to me now.

I first knew him in Washington DC in the 1970s, when he was going by his given name of Ron. He was one of the younger poets who were part of the alternative poetry scene in DC back then.

He had a vitality for life that was hard to match. And he wasn’t afraid to embrace experience and to challenge accepted ideas and standards, nor to speak the truth as he saw it.

Back when I first knew him, I remember reading an article about the statistics of life expectancy and occupations. It turned out, orchestra conductors had the longest average life span of any job.

They explained that it was probably due to several factors, including the natural aerobic exercise they got from conducting a concert, or even rehearsals, the mental exercise they got from having to re-interpret scores for different orchestras, or new scores for the same orchestra.

And the natural satisfaction they got from having achieved their goal of being a professional conductor and from completing concerts and receiving not only the applause of a live audience, but good reviews, prestige in their field, recognition, etc.

And, the job was safe, almost accident free.

On the other hand, the occupations with the shortest life spans, I remember noting at the time, were taxi drivers and poets.

Back then, in the ‘70s, taxi drivers were being killed, in robberies, more often than miners in cave ins or cops in shootouts or firemen in fighting fires and rescues. So the idea of driving a cab being a hazardous profession in the 1970s and ‘80s made sense.

Unfortunately, so did the idea of the hazards of being a poet. First of all, in my experience, poets are over sensitive, it’s what makes them “the antennae of the race” as Pound put it, more or less.

And because of that over sensitivity to the inequities and mysteries, let alone miseries and general unfairness of the world and life, the “lack of tenderness in the world” as Lawrence Durrell put it in JUSTINE, they suffer—at least emotionally and mentally, if not physically—more than a lot of folks in other occupations do (e.g. many doctors and nurses have a tendency to harden their hearts, to some extent, in the face of all the pain and death they encounter).

So when this article pointed out that the reason the average life span for poets was so low was because of all the suicides, I assumed it was because of the over sensitivity.

But in fact, a lot of the poets I know who have died too young (at my age, death at any age seems too young, but I’m talking about dying before middle age) died of “natural” causes—Ed Cox, James Haining, Tim Dlugos, et. al.

Although a probably equal amount took their own lives either quickly—like Ralph Dickey—or slowly—like so many who died as a result of their drinking and drugging, which is often just a slow form of suicide.

Not that this is any comfort to those left behind. But it is to me, in what some might see as a perverse way. Because I believe, though it seems irrational, that these poets who passed too early knew somehow their destiny, and it's what made them such fine poets, their sensitivity either a result of knowing somewhere in their DNA that their lives would end too soon in the world’s terms, or vice versa.

Either way, I am grateful for the work they leave behind as some form of consolation at least for those who like me experience art that way

In fact, usually in their work you can find a prediction of their own demise, some last will or words, or wish for ways for those left behind to console themselves, or at least to understand.

Here’s only one of many that Liam wrote (thanks to Terence Winch for pointing this one out to me):

The Remarkable Objectivity
of Your Old Friends

by Liam Rector

We did right by your death and went out,
Right away, to a public place to drink,
To be with each other, to face it.

We called other friends - the ones
Your mother hadn't called - and told them
What you had decided, and some said

What you did was right; it was the thing
You wanted and we'd just have to live
With that, that your life had been one

Long misery and they could see why you
Had chosen that, no matter what any of us
Thought about it, and anyway, one said,

Most of us abandoned each other a long
Time ago and we'd have to face that
If we had any hope of getting it right.


jamie said...

beautiful post lals.

Anonymous said...

Lal--Your fine tribute to Liam Rector mentioned Ralph Dickey. His suicide still haunts me--in his car, at Baker State Beach in San Francisco, a plastic bag over his head, rat poison in his system, no identification on his person, and only a piece of paper in his pocket with Michael Harper's name and phone number on it.
In the posthumous collection of Ralph's poems, Leaving Eden, which
Michael published in 1974, there are several poems with images of suicide, perhaps the most chilling of which is "Father." May I take the liberty of posting it here so the readers of your blog can read it?


I sat on my stool
in the dark
a plane of light
from the cracked door
fell across my face
like a burn
in the next room
my father was beating
my mother to death
he kicked her until
she cried blood
and then he kicked her
until she came down
with a coma
and then he kicked her until
he just couldn't
kick her no more
he came in to see me
and put his hand on
my shoulder listen
I want you to kill
a man for me
I stood up he shoved me
back sit down I'll
give you a hundred
dollars what do you
say I said well
who is it
here's a piece of paper with the man's name
kill him I'll give you
a hundred dollars
I opened the paper my name
was on it I turned
it over to see if
there was an alternate
what is this I said
some kind of goddam
joke I never joke
about money
he said
Copyright (c) 1974 by
Michael S. Harper,
Representative of the
literary estate of
Ralph A. Dickey

bob berner

Anonymous said...

hope this works..Michael..Terrence called to tell me the very horrible news of Liam's suicide..We were really good friends at U of Md.studying with Rudd Fleming who we both were lucky enough to find... I also was very close with Elizabeth, his first wife..Ron,Liam, was the one who told me about Mass Transit, I went to his reading last year at the Library of Congress..he seemed ok..if not great..I guess you just dont know.enjoying you blog Michael...was on it yesterday just to feel connected....Lynne Dreyer

Lally said...

Bob, thanks for the Dickey comment, I remember all that very well. When I got the news Ralph had cimmited suicide, it was the first time my kids (now grown) had seen me cry, standing in our "commune" in DC holding the phone in my hand sobbing. We were very close, and I was so sorry.

And Lynne, great to hear from you, though sorry under these circumstances. I saw Liam a few times in the last year or so thanks to Terry, and he, Liam, seemed in great spirits on the surface. But the work often said otherwise. I hope you're still writing Lynne.

Anonymous said...

..light from the cracked door fell across my face like a burn...
What an image. I cried just reading that. Michael, I knew Ralph a bit in Iowa CIty. I still remember him giving me a bookcase he didn't need anymore and the two of us carrying it through the snow to my apartment...(the one the you and Lee used to live in) in downtown Iowa City. He was a beautiful soul and I still recall him vividly.

the individual voice said...

The poems I've read seem like a long good-bye. I posted on him today as well, though from a personal perspective of a Bennington student who only knew his persona from a distance. Suicide is always tragic because it seems so preventable. What if...?

Anonymous said...

I'm writing a research paper on Liam Rector. Can you help me out? I need a lot of information but all the websites I get on say the same thing except this one. Can you please give me more information? Thanks, Sara