By Con Chapman

It has been a little more than eight years since poet Rachel Wetzsteon committed suicide at the age of 42 following the end of a three-year romance.

At the time of her death Wetzsteon (pronounced “whetstone”) was the poetry editor of The New Republic and a faculty member at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey.  She was the author of three volumes of poetry and a study of W.H. Auden, and had been published in The New Yorker, among other publications.  Beyond the small-pond world of poetry, however, her death went largely unnoticed, and her reputation beyond the world of the literary magazines A.J. Leibling derided as “the quarterlies” hasn’t grown much.  A recent check of two bookstores and a network of public libraries revealed that none had any of her books on their shelves.  The short entry about her in Wikipedia still begins by noting who her father was, as if that were the most important fact about her.  By contrast, three years after Sylvia Plath’s suicide her own mother was already complaining “I am so sick of the ‘legend’, the ‘image.’”

Why the difference?  It is impolitic to point out that Plath was pretty, while Wetzsteon was not.  Anne Sexton, another suicide, had striking good looks and today has a higher reputation than Wetzsteon even though her poetry is, by just about any measure that counts, inferior.  The world that makes female poets’ reputations, despite its pose as the enemy of all things patriarchal, appears to be judging its victims by the very standards it professes to reject.

The case can be made, however, that Wetzsteon’s work will, as William Faulkner might put it, not just endure but prevail over that of Plath and Sexton.  Wetzsteon took as her models two unlikely sources; Philip Larkin and W.H. Auden, taking the road less traveled–if at all–by female poets of her time.  Her poems tack away from the rocky shores of confessional poetry, the mode of expression that has become identified–to a fault–with just about all poetry written by women since Plath.

Where the confessional poets such as Plath and Sexton seemed to yearn for death as completion, Wetzsteon projected an urban toughness–she lived in New York City–that gave hope she would overcome the urge to kill herself, the occupational hazard of female poets, like falls from great heights by window-washers.  Her poems promised something else as well: a way out of the dead-end that contemporary poetry sometimes stumbles into.  One of her poems was published posthumously in “poetry”–one of (if not the) leading forums for living poets.  It appeared during a stretch in which the liveliest argument (“poetry” contains more writing–or grousing–about poetry than actual poems) in the publication’s pages concerned a poet who has written that he hates his wife’s–well, for those keeping score at home, as the baseball announcers say, it rhymes with “bunt.”  Another poet, whose deathless verse includes the image of drinking diarrhea–responded that he’d be upset if readers weren’t offended by the image.  Potty-mouth as poetry.

Wetzsteon didn’t confuse vulgarity with expressiveness, but she was an unflinching observer of the world and the self, and what little there is in the way of progress to be made in either sphere.  These lines are from the title poem of her last collection, about a park in her Morningside Heights neighborhood:

The park admits the wind,
the petals lift and scatter
like versions of myself I was on the verge
of becoming; and ten years on
and ten blocks down I still can’t tell
whether this dispersal resembles
a fist unclenching or waving goodbye.


Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, among other print publications. He is the author of “poetry is kind of important,” a book of humor about poetry, and “The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head,” a collection of light verse. He is currently writing a biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s alto sax player, for Oxford University Press.


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12 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    I really liked this and will check out her work as a result.
    Very much to the point and very well-written.

  2. Allen

    Her poem was fine.

    The grander themes of poetry beyond just the self, unless limited to narrow fields within the areas the unjust prejudices against people of color, ethnicity, gender even though onerous in themselves and deserving of solutions, is much diminished. These great injustices are worthy of great themes as well and not just as lists of grievances. They should include the uniqueness of voice, as woven with its experience within itself, to the greater world around.

    The lack of visual charisma of Wetzteon and glamour used as a criteria of judgement of legacy and worth, as well as gender or race, either way is a disgrace.

    Also, the poetry of literary magazines, for the most part perpetuate the university culture. Most of what I see are works of professors.

  3. David Watt

    Your essay proves the point that the physical appearance of female poets unjustly influences their enduring reputation. I had not heard of Rachel Wetzsteon, but will, like Joe Tessitore, look into her work.

    Confusing vulgarity with expressiveness is certainly a common trait of what passes for ‘modern’ poetry. If vulgarity presents as a poem’s foundation, the poem has no strength to recommend it.

    Thank you for this essay.

  4. Bruce Edward Wren

    Very good and brief essay (bonus brevis, bis bonum!) on this poet, who, unto now, was unknown to me. Thank you to Mr. Chapman.

  5. Con Chapman

    Thanks all. She is unique for following Auden when everyone else was swimming in the other direction, that’s for sure.

  6. James Sale

    This is a well written polemic but alas I won’t be seeking out its topic. Quite apart from the suicide, a self-inflicted drama which detracts from importance, just as it detracts from life, one word says it all: “unflinching”. In the last 40 years in the UK that has been the defining word of approbation for all the dreary drivel and post-modernist nonsense with which – like ‘diarrhoea’ – we have been flooded. I don’t see how the formless passage quoted derives from Larkin and Auden? They loved form. Dante certainly was ‘unflinching’ in seeing what he saw, but with form – terza rima in Dante’s case – all ugly things possess a renewed beauty; that is what I want to see illustrated before I look for Wetzteon. Where is the form that refreshes our vision?

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      St. Thomas gives four reasons why suicide is unlawful under both divine and positive law, and it is most significant that the Doctor Angelicus treats of the subject under the heading of murder (try §64 in the 60s of the Secunda-Secundae):

      1. Contrary to the Natural Law – as form of homicide.
      2. Contrary to Charity – as one must love oneself in order to love others.
      3. Injurious to the Common Good – see Donne’s “no man is an island unto himself…” and society diminshed.
      4. Grave Mortal Sin Against God – Who is the author of life, has power over it, and is the supreme unique judge – usurpation of God’s authority and judgment.

      As for Kierkegaard, his philosophical errors, which are many (he does not even believe in objective reality), would be enough to induce suicide in anyone who follows his arguments to their natural conclusion. He was not only a subjectivist, but also a Protestant for whom faith is a blind leap into a world of existential angst in which the intellect receives no external illumination and is forced to operate in total darkness.

      Through the anti-philosopher Martin Heidegger, Kierkegaard became the official philosopher not only of the German Democratic Socialists (also known as the Nazis), but of all 20th-century socialists.

      So, not only poor ignorant liberal commit suicide under Kierkegaard’s influence, but also whole societies.


  7. Dic Asburee Wel

    I think Dana Gioia is another one of those influenced by Auden.

    On Rachel Wetzsteon
    “the fancy cannot cheat so well…deceiving elf.”
    —John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”

    Her whetstone was her poetry, on which she sharpened wit,
    but it could not sustain her, when it came right down to it;
    at forty-two she left the zoo, in her Manhattan home,
    depressed, perhaps, that once again, she would be left to moan.
    She played about the quiet urban sets of soft despair,
    of Auden, Larkin, Soren Kierkegaard and Baudelaire,
    and left the New Republic in the New Millennium,
    before she had a chance to fuselize titanium,
    on coated diamond plate, culled from rutile and ilmenite,
    to make her—Rachel Wetzsteon—hard enough to take the light.

    • Dic Asburee Wel

      Of this poem, Dana Gioia said: “Poor Rachel. I knew her, not terribly well but over a period of many years…Your ornate diction disguises her terrible end, but I still feel the horror. I don’t think I’ve ever seen ilmenite in a poem before.”

      My favourite rhyme is home/moan, particularly for its dissonance, the opening after the consonant in the second word, and the contrast in the meaning of the two words; but as you know, artists often feel differently than others about their work, as, for example, Plautus’ preference for the “Epidicus” over such works, such as, “Amphitruo,” “Aulularia,” “Bacchides,” “Captivi,” “Menaechmi” (which Shakespeare used), “Mostellaria,” “Miles Gloriosus,” “Pseudolus,” “Rudens,” and “Trinummus.”

      In response to Mr. Gioia’s comment on “ilmenite,” as I stated earlier in the strand inaugurated by one of the better analyses @ SPC, yours on Frederick Turner’s “Apocalypse,” I agree totally with Mr. Turner’s contention that the modern poem should “domesticate burgeoning new vocabularies.” Personally, I have to admit I am more partial to “fuselize,” meaning to weld/meld/melt, either chemically or artistically, as, for example, in the manner of Fuseli, another neologism by Beau Lecsi Werd.

  8. Scubie Dew Lear

    It seems that Mr. Chapman is stirring in Postmodernist debris in his microessays, e.g., Capote, Plath, and Wetzsteon. I remember hearing of Ms. Wetzsteon’s death in 2009, and thinking who cares? And now I know.

    This time around, I gave her poetry a half hour of my time [Mr. Wel even gave her a tennos!], but that’s all she’s worth; she’s worth no more [Macbeth]. And this is more than Mr. Sale is interested in. On that I couldn’t agree more. Mr. Sale’s focus on “unflinching” and his reference to Dante Alighieri are important. Why I looked at her poetry at all is because she is an American of my era. End of story.

    Mr. Sale also rightly points out that Wetzsteon’s poetry hardly seems Audenesque or Larkinesque. Of course, Mr. Wel’s point in the tennos is that even those poets, despite their poetic qualities, along with her interest in Kierkegaard and Baudelaire, are hardly worth, what seemed to be for her, an important investment. Now I don’t think any of these four historical individuals are entirely insignificant, only that Wetzsteon did not approach the power of their poetry or thought. But why would one want to?

    I am also thankful for Mr. MacKenzie’s post of the four reasons Aquinas gave for the sin of suicide; and I agree totally: it is contrary to Nature, to Charity, to the Common Good, and to God.
    And that cannot be iterated enough.

    However, lest I be too shallow, or trivial, I should remember, that Kierkegaard, like Saul of Tarsus (Paul) believed it is important to confront the Unknown: [from Acts], “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” In short, Kierkegaard focused on Paul’s conversion to Christ, and in doing so becomes existential. Is Wetzsteon anywhere near there?

    What I both admire and dislike about Kierkegaard is his individuality and his unwillingness to accept doctrine unflinchingly. Here, of course, he was struggling against the Romantic wave, spawned by the likes of philosophers, like Kant, Hegel, etc. But diving into such a realm can hardly help one unaware of the horrors inaugurated by such existential dread, can it?

    Finally, another striking quality of Kierkegaard is his earnestness; and yet, upon saying that, I can’t help but think of Jack’s [i.e. Ernest’s] response to Lady Bracknell’s accusation of triviality in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” when he ironically says “I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of Being Ernest.” Victorian humour is an antedote to a hell of a lot of existential nonsense.

  9. James Sale

    Thanks Scoobie Doo – on your point number 3 yes, who would want to? That would be to succumb to modernism; so we may, possibly, learn from some techniques of some of these poets at the higher end of ability, but on the level of inspiration they are dreary materialists peddling existential angst – hopeless, indeed. And thank you Mr Mackenzie for a very concise summary of the good doctor’s views, with which I agree, and even more concisely I dislike suicide because it’s bad for you!


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