Essay

Desire to Burn

Did Kurt Cobain die because he misread a poem?

by Tim Appelo
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).

Kurt Cobain ( Charles Peterson)
Love thrust improving books on him, and some he took to heart. He wrote out lines by the 1920s poet Elinor Wylie in his journals.

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’:
Dying
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.”
Originally Published: April 10, 2006

COMMENTS (9)

On February 6, 2007 at 11:07am Johna wrote:
This was very insightful. I really loved it. It's like Mr Aplleo really thought long and hard about how Cobain felt. Truley inspiring.

On February 26, 2007 at 9:44pm TRISHA wrote:
I THINK THIS IS ONE OF THE BEST THAT I'VE EVER READ.YOU NEED TO KEEP ON DOING WHAT YOUR DOING.

On May 20, 2007 at 1:44pm Aramis wrote:
This is really good, it's so far the best that I have read!

On March 14, 2008 at 1:48pm Mars wrote:
You whwre an Inspiration to all of us.....Its a shame your gone....But you will alway's be rememberd.

On May 6, 2008 at 12:29pm jessica wrote:
Wow I really feel this is something that alot of artists and people who crave knowledge, change, experience, creativity should read and study. It actually reflects my over ambitious desires for experiences. I can really relate to this man. Although his difference from alot of people was his negavitity. It's a shame that he craved his tragedy along with all this growth..

On January 7, 2009 at 10:57am josh Thomas wrote:
i liked it so much i bought the the fucking book R.I.P kURT

On November 20, 2010 at 2:22pm Ryan Rhymer wrote:
this is good and i really dont want you to
think im rude or anything but i think you
should know that kurt wasnt a tenth grade
drop out. he actually droped out in the 12
grade because he didnt have enough
credits to graduate

On November 12, 2011 at 5:49pm Krista wrote:
Thank you Tim! Being a member of the Kurt cult, a gen Xer, a former
flannel plaid wearer (ok not so former), and a lover of angst riddled
poetry. I found this to open my mind and try to imagine what Kurt
would have felt (had he lived today) reading the poems he had then-
now. Sometimes I read something or hear a song that held so much
meaning and emotion 15 years ago to my teenage self, and find that it
now seeps of contrition and bloody sap, or that I did not get it at all...
But then he could have ended up a washed out lounge act, fading
away, and if that, I would have lost some of my own soul.

On April 18, 2012 at 1:10pm raoul wrote:
Sorry to go against the tide, but this article is making some pretty big leaps and assumptions here. Can you say someone didn't read with an open mind just because his personal journals were rather typically angsty, and he clipped part of a poem? Maybe he just didn't have enough space above the drawing? Maybe lots of other reasons?

I would also question the point about his imagination lacking the wisdom of reflectiveness (and keeping in mind we're talking about someone who died in his late 20s). I think there was plenty of reflection in his lyrics. Or watch the film "About A Son" which, despite it's moments of hopelessness, reveals a very reflective and thoughtful young man. Maybe at the end Cobain had exhausted all hope, but "before he was born"? I find it hard to believe anyone could have accomplished all the things he had done with such an attitude.

I'm not saying the assumptions here are necessarily wrong, it's just they are rather big ones to make, and simplifies (and romanticizes) something as complex as suicide.

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Biography

Seattle's Tim Appelo has been an editor at Amazon.com, EW's video critic, a film critic for The Nation, a People music critic, and a contributor to the Washington Post and the Timeses of New York, LA, and Seattle.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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