Taylor Swift isn’t a tortured poet

Most of this fan detective work is biographical, trying to figure out which person or incident Swift is talking about in each song.
Most of this fan detective work is biographical, trying to figure out which person or incident Swift is talking about in each song.


But her new album draws on ideas about the connection between poetry and suffering that go back centuries.

When James Joyce was writing “Ulysses," his 1922 modernist masterpiece, he is supposed to have declared, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." When it comes to interpretive zeal, however, Joyce scholars have nothing on Swifties, the ferociously dedicated young fans of Taylor Swift. As soon as the pop star announced, in February, that her next album would be called “The Tortured Poets Department," the internet started to speculate about the title’s significance. When the album was released on April 19, the “close reading" of Swift’s lyrics, as it would be called in English departments, went into overdrive.

Most of this fan detective work is biographical, trying to figure out which person or incident Swift is talking about in each song. But “The Tortured Poets Department" also raises a genuinely literary question. Why does Swift’s title make immediate sense to millions of listeners who don’t read much actual poetry, but have absorbed the idea that poets are and should be dark, brooding, emotionally tormented figures? Why is the idea of the tortured poet so central to our cultural imagination?

The only poet referred to by name on Swift’s album is a classic example. In the title song, she tells an unnamed lover: “You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith/This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel, we’rе modern idiots." Dylan Thomas, who died in 1953 while staying at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, wrote hypnotic poems whose power comes in large part from being difficult to understand. (For instance: “How now my flesh, my naked fellow,/Dug of the sea, the glanded morrow,/Worm in the scalp, the staked and fallow.")

But his legend rests largely on his bohemianism, philandering and heavy drinking, which contributed to his death at age 39. A famous story, since disputed, says that Thomas drank 18 whiskeys in a row on the day he died, declaring “I think that’s the record." This quasi-suicide sealed Thomas’s legend as a tortured poet. A few years later, the young folk singer Robert Zimmerman staked a claim to that legacy when he renamed himself Bob Dylan.

Alcoholism is one of the least romantic ways to die, but when a great poet like Dylan Thomas destroys himself, something more than substance abuse seems to be involved. The idea that poets are set apart from normal ways of living, that being a poet is a kind of madness, goes back to the very beginnings of Western civilization.

In one of Plato’s dialogues, written around 400 B.C., the philosopher Socrates talks with a man named Ion, who is the ancient Greek equivalent of a rock star—he is a “rhapsode," a performer who gives public recitations of poetry. After quizzing Ion, Socrates concludes that “the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and meter they are inspired and possessed."

Shakespeare agreed, writing in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream" that “the lunatic, the lover and the poet/Are of imagination all compact"—that is, they all have the same kind of mind. If sanity means seeing things as they really are, then a poet is necessarily insane, because he or she dwells in a world of imagination. For Plato, it followed that we shouldn’t trust what poets have to say, especially about serious matters like religion. Mad geniuses make bad teachers.

In the 19th century, however, being a tortured poet started to look like a source of moral prestige. As the modern world took shape in Europe—a world defined by anonymous urban life, consumerism and rapid technological change—the Romantic movement in literature championed all the values that modernity had no room for. Things like imagination, mystery and beauty, which had always been the province of poetry, couldn’t be priced for the market or manufactured in mass quantities.

Thus a new archetype was born: what the French called the poète maudit, the “cursed poet," whose inability to function in ordinary life was a sign of spiritual superiority. The classic example was Charles Baudelaire, who lived in turmoil and poverty while writing some of the greatest poems in the French language. He offered a symbol of his predicament in “The Albatross," comparing the poet to the seabird that is magnificent in flight, while “Exiled on Earth amidst its hooting crowds,/He cannot walk, borne down by giant wings."

For the poète maudit, defying bourgeois society meant embracing things that most people considered wicked, such as drug addiction and prostitution. Baudelaire’s most famous book was titled “The Flowers of Evil"; Arthur Rimbaud wrote “A Season in Hell," boasting “I laid myself down in the mud. I dried myself in the air of crime." For such lives to end in madness or suicide seemed almost fitting. The French poet Gerard de Nerval hanged himself; the American Hart Crane, a late example of the type, died in 1932 by jumping off a ship in the Gulf of Mexico.

The catalog of poetic suicides is long and still growing. A 1995 study titled “The Price of Greatness," by psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig, looked at 1,000 creative artists and found that 20% of the poets died by suicide, compared with just 1% of the general population. Yet the very fact that this research was undertaken by a psychiatrist is a sign of how our understanding of tortured poets has changed. In the mid-20th century, with the rise of modern theories of mental illness, madness in poets began to look like a psychological problem rather than a spiritual ordeal.

American poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and John Berryman became known as “confessional poets" because they wrote openly about their experience of mania, depression and addiction. Even their experiences in mental hospitals weren’t off-limits, as in Lowell’s poem “Waking in the Blue": “My heart grows tense/as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill./(This is the house for the ‘mentally ill.’)" No one could read these poets, or read about their lives, and think it would be glamorous to follow in their footsteps.

And when Taylor Swift invokes tortured poets, it isn’t to celebrate the myth but to deflate and dismiss it. The album’s title song addresses an ex-boyfriend who thinks that acting troubled will make him seem deep: “you’re in self-sabotage mode,/Throwing spikes down on the road." But when Swift brings up Dylan Thomas, it’s to mock her lover for acting out an obsolete stereotype, failing to recognize that he’s just a “modern idiot."

Swift herself is famous for singing about misery, usually caused by a romance gone wrong. The first song on her new album, “Fortnight," even begins by hinting at the kind of hospitalization Lowell wrote about: “I was supposed to be sent away/But they forgot to come and get me/I was a functioning alcoholic."

But Taylor Swift is synonymous with success—with wealth and fame and good looks—and listeners know that, however dramatic the lyrics, her struggles always end in triumph. As she sings in one of the last tracks on “The Tortured Poets Society," “I cry a lot, but I am so productive, it’s an art/You know you’re good when you can even do it with a broken heart."

Perhaps the difference between a pop star and a genuine poet is that the former is only playing a role, while the latter has to go on being tortured whether they like it or not.

Adam Kirsch is an editor in the Wall Street Journal’s Review section and the author of four books of poetry, including “The Discarded Life."

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