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JANUARY 30, 2013 8:10AM

The Life and Death and Art of Rachel Wetzsteon

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

Rachel Wetzsteon


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.

Anne Sexton


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.

Sylvia 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, it rhymes with “bunt.”  Another poet whose deathless verse includes the image of drinking diarrhea said he'd be upset if readers weren't offended by it.  Potty-mouth as poetry.

Wetzsteon didn’t confuse vulgarity with expressiveness, but she was an unflinching observor 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.

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a. I have really liked your series on female poets, and all the different ways you have approached each one, and the subject itself. I am not fond of confessional or angsty poetry in general.

On a side note, someone gave me postcards of Edward Gorey's Neglected Murderesses. I must be developing a taste for the crazies. Thanks for opening up this vein! hahah.

b. This point about vulgarity as shows up in the other arts too, not necessarily as vulgarity, but the mistaken (IMO) opinion that to be brash, difficult, or different makes you good. I would argue that it's not just the angry child who refuses to go along with norms who is the genius. Rather, it is the one who persists in describing beauty in her particular way so that we realize she saw what was there all along and we had just missed the view. Maybe I grow obscure: the fate of unrecognized Minor Female Bloggers of the 21st Century.

3. Maybe I should stop stuffing tortillas in my face.
a. Thanks/You're welcome.
b. I think vulgarity in the arts is a combination of rebellion and contempt for patrons. It started with the French (Marcel Duchamp and his urinal), artists who had to live off the patronage of the rich and the wannabe rich but couldn't live well enough and thus sought to express their disdain subversively. "You don't like my crap--you philistine!"
c. Keep stuffing, but please don't type with your mouth full. More bloggers choke that way!
I hadn't heard. I used to read poetry with her around the "scene" in NYC, and I knew her father, Ross, who for many years was in charge of the theatre dept. at the Village Voice, and ran the Obie Awards.

I thought of her work at the time of her first book as very sweet and fragile. And I had the feeling she was a little embarrassed her family provided entre into publishing while the rest of us ate dirt. She deserved to be there and wore her advantages with humility and grace.

How sad. How did you know her?

I didn't know her, I stumbled on her poem in Poetry after she died and started reading other stuff by her. That poem was better than anything I'd read in Poetry during a few years of subscribing. I think she's the real deal.