Embracing the Despised Poems: Remembering Scott Timberg

April 22, 2021   •   By Joe Donnelly

SCOTT TIMBERG took his life on December 10, 2019, a fact that sits with me here unreconciled as I read the posthumously released Beeswing, his book with Richard Thompson. I’d probably be thinking of Scott even without this reminder of his passions, as I’ve thought about him every day since he killed himself, the way you might think of an intimate who suddenly ghosted you. That doesn’t make me unique. Scott was widely and deservedly loved, and now he is missed.

I’ve also thought of him every day since he killed himself in a different way: like the memory of a close call that you can’t quite shake. Which is to say, I have some familiarity with the things that troubled Scott and drove him over the edge. This doesn’t make me unique either. Scott’s downwardly mobile trajectory after reaching the pinnacle of his profession — a fall precipitated by, among other exigencies, the very things he wrote about in his essential Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class — is part of a particular zeitgeist. So, no, I’m not unique in the ways the loss of Scott has made me think and feel. But the weariness and grief of this long season increasingly feels to me like it was predicated, if not ushered in, by his death.

The news of his death, like the pandemic that followed, was both shocking and unsurprising. It reached me via a text message that asked a simple question. At the time, I was walking across the campus where I teach, skirting a lush knoll adorned with what I think Scott would agree was better-than-typical public art. A lovely shade tree and the Spanish Revivalist landmark, Diehl Hall — a building that, along with Johnny Poet, is Whittier College’s most recognizable icon — sat welcomingly atop the hill.

“Weren’t you friends with Scott Timberg?” read the text.

In front of me, sunshine reflected optimistically off the glass facade of the shimmering Science & Learning Center, the college’s $50-million-plus stake on the future. Behind me, shadows edged across Wardman Library, with its mysterious Nixon Room tucked inside and its great lawn collecting pine needles and students.

The text was an uninvited interloper onto the idyll, and I wasn’t thinking at the time of William Carlos Williams’s description of “despised poems” — “It is difficult to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there” — though it serves as one of my calls to rally students to the cause of literature, arts, and culture.

I wasn’t thinking about those lines because in my walking reverie, I’d had a lapse of sorts. I had forgotten what hard times these were for people and poets, had forgotten how little value we placed on those despised poems that Scott loved on a cellular level. But the text jolted me back to reality, and I immediately texted a close friend of ours.

“He didn’t kill himself, did he?” I asked.

The question had turned rhetorical before the answer came moments later. For anyone who knew Scott, or had read his work, or had engaged in spirited conversations with him; for anyone who understood how fiercely he defended what is found in those despised poems, and how much the devaluation thereof pained him, the news would not be surprising.

The exhaustion I’d heard in his voice during a recent phone conversation started looping in my head. The familiar, insinuating grin and the conspiratorially cocked eyebrow that I’d encountered at a party some weeks before hijacked my consciousness. That party was the last time I’d seen him alive. It was full of literati. I knew fewer of them than I used to and I spent a good deal of that evening hanging with Scott on the edge of a scene we used to be in the middle of. Scott was reliably generous with his wit, reliably great in conversation — smarter, better versed than anyone — and he, reliably, made me feel relevant.

I put my phone away and continued walking south across campus toward the sunlight that bounced off the Science & Learning Center. The building, a sort of brutalist-modernist mash-up, isn’t bad to look at, but the school will be retiring its debt for a long time, maybe even until the humanities, the foundation upon which Whittier College was built, are back en vogue.

No matter. Scott would have loved it here at this little oasis in the middle of Los Angeles County, the home he loved for the existential proposition that it is. Because I’d failed to tell him, though, he never knew that I’d often imagined him here with me or replacing me when I moved on. Aside from everything else — intrepid interlocutor, keen observer, fierce defender of the arts — I have it on good account that Scott was also a great teacher. I think he would have appreciated this place that I believe still understands what happens when our dreams are bereft of poetry.

I also have it on good account (Scott’s!) that he was turning into a pretty decent guitar player. If I’m not mistaken, he came to his vision of jukebox herodom late, but in typical fashion, he was earnest in his pursuit, making up for lost time quickly and arriving at proficiency in a blink. He was always working on new chords, new progressions, new songs. In recent years, he’d invited me to jam with him several times, but I had dodged, knowing that despite having decades on him, I wouldn’t be able to keep up.

I don’t think Scott’s growing interest in becoming a musician in his own right was research for Beeswing, but I imagine it only enhanced his collaboration with Thompson. It’s nice when your heroes are also fellow travelers. Thompson was certainly one of Scott’s, and this book rings like the work of people who met on paths that were mysteriously bound for each other, paths that when joined might take them somewhere new and exciting.

Of course, we don’t get to see where that new place would be for Scott.

Suicides are personal and unfathomable, and I wouldn’t try to explain or characterize Scott’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. Nor am I trying to make it poetic — it isn’t. But I do feel like I know something about how men might suffer for the lack of what is found there in despised poetry — how men trapped in bodies, identities, expectations, and projections might feel like there is no way out. Except, perhaps, to somehow become simply spirit. That spirit remains on the pages, in the words he left us, in his stubborn refusal to let us go lacking, in his insistence that we embrace despised poetry and live fully. He’s insisting still.

¤


Joe Donnelly, an award-winning journalist and short-story writer, is currently Assistant Visiting Professor of English and Journalism at Whittier College. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.