I try not to think about dying much.
Whenever I do, naive as it may be, I dismiss it as something that happens to other people, usually in very spectacular ways. A longago plague sweeps through eastern Europe. A car bomb explodes in a crowded bazaar. A distraught lover climbs over a rail and leaps into the drink. Splashy demises always seem so far away, so detached from the realm.
Then there's what I consider "regular" dying, which pretty much consists of extremely old people who smile in their sleep and just drift away..or obscenely attractive people with broken hearts, dwindling to mere air, surrounded by a loving beside circle of family and friends. This type of dying is usually accompanied by music.
I never think of poets succumbing. I can't wrap my head around notebooks of unfinished stanzas, empty stages, slim volumes with blank pages. The poets I grew up with and around are so utterly necessary, so vital. I'm not sure how I'd process my life without their help. I never thought I'd have to.
But lately poets have been dying, just like ordinary people.

Phebus Etienne, the warm, effusive sister to everyone. Sekou Sundiata, fiery and unflinching lyricist. And just this past weekend, Yictove, stalwart of the Knitting Factory and community firebrand. No matter how many times it happens, it jolts. That much throat, no longer here. No longer here.
A month or so ago, I was doing at residency at a middle school here in Westchester. During a break in the middle of the day, I came home to have lunch. While I was having my sandwich, I felt a twitching pain just above my left breast. At first I told myself that it was the kind of pain that results from the inadvertent stretching of something, but its dogged persistence worried me. I went to a doctor and the doctor called an ambulance, and before I knew what was happening, I was hurtling down Rt. 9 through Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow and Ossining and Briarcliff Manor to the emergency room, where I was thoroughly convinced I would die.
I wondered what I would leave behind. Did those poems, those lovingly crafted indy press offerings mean anything beside the paper they were printed on? Would I be, as I predicted in one poem, one of those "...shamed by the tiny blips
we’d leave behind/ notebooks of indecipherable stanzas, self-published tomes,/ blurry VHS tapes of ourselves reading to ourselves"?
How do you decide if your mark on the world is enough of a mark? If you're a poet, what legacy is enough? A book? A number of books? An award or two? The fact that someone somewhere calls you "teacher"? A consistent present in the glitzy, heavily-funded lit mags? A couple of National Poetry Slam championships? A bundle of cash rewarding you for a lifetime body of work? A kid who picks up your book and starts writing because she or he can't help it? A teacher, a secretary, a pump jockey, an ex-con who reads or hears you and realizes a throat they never knew?
Phebus, Sekou, Yictove. You didn't stop doing what you do. And look at all these unfolding worlds you've left us, all this rhythm and challenge and answer. Thank you for reminding me to forge something, however small, that will last.
Thank you for reminding me that poets die.

Originally Published: July 31st, 2007

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall...

  1. July 31, 2007
     nate van til

    If you die today or keep going without changing a thing, you've been right on time and right on target to so many people, Ms. Smith. To humanize (make real the suffering of) a person or group of people for other people, or even more importantly for themselves--that is about the most profound thing a human can ever do, along with helping us to understand that we are part of the earth, and that we are as important as everything in it, and everything in it as important as we.
    And you've done many other fine things, besides doing that so wunnerful, everywhere you've been and come and gone.
    Dug that ghazal, by the way.
    Ms. Smith’s ghazal’s a gas–it keeps
    the weeping priests puzzled en Mass;
    funny--the ones wistful to nuzzle will
    always be wishing to muzzle that ass.
    dirty cur-mudgeon mongrel nate doggrel,
    fronting at the back of the class war, why
    oh why did I have to go and give sass for?

  2. July 31, 2007

    those stanzas roar. kudos.
    and thank you for making me feel so alive.

  3. August 1, 2007

    Yictove died?
    What a quiet man of dignity. What a keen eye and wit.
    I loved how much he watched us, turned us over in his mind. Took us seriously. Stroked and slapped the backs of our hands, interchangeably.
    The slow delivery...measured, assured. in. its. own. time.
    That is how he laid it on. In. His. Own. Time.
    I needed to know this. He will be missed. My children will know of him.

  4. August 1, 2007
     Russell Cayer

    Well, certainly, poets are people too. Not only do they live and breathe, but they die as well. Of course poets are not special; just different, perhaps. The world would be less than what it is without poets, but not more so than without engineers. Engineers die, too. Still, our lives are reflective of those with whom we surround ourselves. If we surround ourselves with poets, then we will be fearful to see them go away. With whomever we surround ourselves, we will be fearful to see them go away. So we learn from them as best we can. And we try to pass on what we learn. It is encouraging, too, that we seem to see a revitalization of poetry. For certainly poetry has its place. And in its place it best serves the people, that is what we know. Poetry of the recondite serves no use. It is merely institutional. It's funny that people call for a "new" form of poetry. Poetry can never be new, but only a re-working of the old. And in that understanding, of re-structured forms, we need address the people. This is the revitalization of which we speak, of a poetry "from, by, and of the people." So as they die, let us give them birth.

  5. August 1, 2007

    The way I understand it, Yictove died this past weekend; he had a heart attack during a reading. I haven't been able to find any more details.
    I believe he's being buried today.
    There's a celebration of his life, with readings and music, on Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m at the Payan Theater of the Times Square Arts Center, 300 W. 43rd St. in NYC (917-292-2683).
    And yes, he was a miracle.

  6. August 3, 2007
     Samiya Bashir

    Ah, Patricia. So beautiful. So timely. So lovely. So right on. I agree with your first commenter as well. That you've already left so much you could certainly curl up into a deep sleep if you wanted to. Fortunately you know there's a huge ol' posse out here ready to kick you in the shins if you try. But oh me oh my. You sho is write about this. Mortality is terrifying, and gratifying too.