Poetry News

Mary Karr Discusses Her David Foster Wallace Poem

By Harriet Staff

In Poetry's September issue, we published a poem by Mary Karr entitled "Suicide's Note: An Annual." Karr discussed the inspiration for this poem, David Foster Wallace's suicide, at a New Yorker panel last week. Slate has kindly provided a recap of the panel:

Karr and Wallace had a stormy romantic relationship in the mid-’90s. When she writes, “So far apart we’d grown/between love transmogrifying into hate and those sad letters,” she could be remembering any one of the incidents she described to New York Magazine’s Evan Hughes: The time Wallace hurled a coffee table at her during a fight, the time he forced her out of the car in a dangerous neighborhood. Karr recalls a “letter of apology” Wallace wrote her, in which he regrets “being such a dick.” Reading the poem, you’re not sure if Karr has forgiven him. “Every suicide’s an asshole,” she writes. “There is a good reason I am not/God, for I would cruelly smite the self-smitten.”

More biographical details are there in the poem for those who want them. “I hope you’ve been taken up by Jesus,” Karr begins, somewhat defiantly, because she “couldn’t today name the gods/you at the end worshipped.” She’d converted to Catholicism; Wallace considered it but never did. Hughes mentions that the two of them prayed together. “More than once you asked/that I breathe into your lungs like the soprano in the opera…so my ghost might inhabit you,” she continues. Wallace claimed that Karr inspired him to pen Infinite Jest—not just to create it, but to make it personal and real instead of “witty arty writing.” (The thought of her animated the work in more ways than one. “The key to ’92 is that MMK was most important,” DFW scribbled in the margins of a self-help book Karr had given him, “IJ was just a means to her end (as it were).”

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Originally Published: October 9th, 2012