You know that old Billy Joel song? Yeah, that’s my title for this post. B-Joel reference, whut! 😉
But in all seriousness: is it true? Is it true to say that only the cream-of-the-crop actors, writers, athletes, insert-famous-person-here, have to die young in order to be considered the best of the best?
This idea came to me when I was reading poems for both my English and French literature classes. And it occurred to me that almost all of the poets have either gone through some massive hardships (i.e. death in the family, divorce, poor health) or died young, or even both.
Like, take a look at some of my favorite writers:
John Keats: died age 25 from tuberculosis
Charles Baudelaire: died age 46 from declining health (aggravated by drugs and a stroke the year prior to his death)
Emily Dickinson: died age 56 from what was seemed to be Bright’s disease (a type of kidney disease)
Others include Lord Byron (age 36), T.E. Hulme (age 34), Honoré de Balzac (age 51), Percy Bysshe Shelley (age 29).
Even today, we canonize celebrities whose lives were cut short by some sort of tragedy, whether it’s by drugs, suicide, car-crash, sickness, etc. In the past few years, we have seen many stars come and go, including (but not limited to): Heath Ledger (age 28), Amy Winehouse (age 27), Brittany Murphy (age 32), Cory Monteith (age 32) and, just recently, Phillip Seymour Hoffman (age 46).
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t commemorate these people’s legacies, but it is strange to me that it is not until they have died that we finally pay attention to them. Yeah, we did pay attention to them when they were still alive, but now, it’s even more so.
But the question I proposed is: is it accurate to say that they were great, just because they died young?
I mean, there are also other great writers and actors out there who live to ripe, old ages, and yes, they get commemorated just the same. But for those who die young are seen as even more tragic, because it seems that their deaths rob them of their potential for a long, rich legacy. I believe that John Keats managed only to put out one volume of poetry before he died, which is just sad.
Another thing that I had asked myself was whether leading an unhappy, torturous existence makes you better of a writer. That having a terminal illness, experiencing war, or drug addiction ensures that you will write outstanding poems or perform brilliantly to critical acclaim.
My opinion? Well…it helps to have all of that; it gives you material to work with; it’s inspiration handed to you on a platter.
But what about those (like me) who don’t have all of that bad stuff happening in our lives? It’s not to say that we have the potential to become great writers or artists, either.
A lot of people are driven to writing/acting/singing because of issues going on in their lives. It can be a form of therapy, in a way. One might say that some of the best works come about because of pain and suffering.
So although you may not have cancer or a drinking problem, you can always find things to write/sing about, no matter how trivial it may seem to you, compared to the rest of the world. Maybe your parents divorced, and you are trying to cope with that. Maybe you feel trapped in your 9-to-5 job, with no way out. Or perhaps the barista at Starbucks messed up your order, when you had made it extra clear that you wanted cream in your coffee.
Poetry doesn’t have to always have to be dark and hellish. In fact, it can just as well be about happiness. Whatever you make it out to be.
It’s up to you.
– The Finicky Cynic