Six years ago, in a brief tribute to the poet Ai, I tried to put into words my sense of the way an artist’s work transforms when the artist’s life is over, and quoted Bishop’s elegy for Lowell: “Sad friend, you cannot change.”
Today, soon after learning of Prince’s death, I went to my next class, all seniors, and we shared our reactions. C. was playing “Adore” on his phone. Z. said: “My mom is going to be so sad.” A: “When we talk to our kids about him, he’s going to be someone who…has always been dead for them. Like John Lennon was for us. Our whole lives, he’s been this great icon who was already dead when we were born.”
(That last one is a paraphrase, but it’s close.)
And we read Bishop’s “North Haven,” because it’s the poem I always think of when an artist dies. No matter how much more of the back catalogue gets published, there’s something finished about the work. Even though, as with the Bishop poem, as with “When Doves Cry” (on my personal list of most loved songs), the work feels living and real, the work is finished.
Oh Prince. I loved Rob Sheffield’s tribute at Rolling Stone:
No other male songwriter of his or any other generation wrote songs about women like this. In an alternate universe, Prince retires in 1987 the day after he writes “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and he’s still the coolest man who walked the earth.