Was S-Town’s John B. McLemore a Poetic Genius?

By Rachel Kraus

In the last lines of the seemingly open-ended podcast S-Town, produced by the makers of This American Life and Serial, narrator Brian Reed actually puts forth a conclusive assertion. While Mary Grace McLemore was pregnant with her son, the podcast’s subject John B. McLemore, she rubbed her belly and wished for a genius. The listener understands that in her son John B., that wish came true.

Throughout S-Town, John B.’s acquaintances repeat what a brilliant mind he had, and listeners hear evidence of his genius as Reed delves into John B.’s life in the wake of his June 2015 suicide. He was a master horologist (clock maker), and fearless chemist; a voracious reader and eventual expert in energy policy and climate change science. He built a hedge maze, “with 64 permutations and one null set,” as Reed notes, of his own design.

We often assign geniuses epithetical types. From Reed’s reporting, one could argue that John B. was an “eccentric genius” or a “scientific genius” or perhaps, with his gifts for building, growing, and repairing, a “technical genius.” But what about an artistic genius? Or even, a poetic genius?

In the final ten minutes of S-Town, Reed recites an extended excerpt from John B.’s suicide note, which was found on the deceased’s computer:

I have not lived a spectacular life. But within my four-dozen-plus years, I’ve had many more hours to pursue that which I chose, instead of moiling over that which I detested.

I have coaxed many infirm clocks back to mellifluous life. Studied projective geometry, and built astrolabes, sundials, taught myself 19th-century electro plating, bronzing, patination, micro-machining, horology, learned piano. Read Poe, De Montpasa, Boccaccio, O’Connor, Welty, Hugo, Balzac, Kafka, Bataille, Gibran, as well as modern works by Mortimer, Hawking, Kuntsler, Klein, Jacoby, Heinberg, Hedges, Hitchings, and Rhodes.

But the best times of my life I realize were the times I spent in the forest and field. I have walked in solitude beside my own babbling creek, and wondered at the undulations, meanderings, and tiny atolls that were occasionally swept into its midst. I have spent time in idle palaver with violets, lyre leaf sage, heliopsis, and monkshood. And marveled at the mystery of monotropa uniflora. I have audited the discourse of the hickories, oaks, and pines, even when no wind was present. I have peregrinated the woods in winter, under the watchful guard of vigilant dogs, and spent hours entranced by the exquisiteness and delicacy of tiny mosses and molds: entire forests within a few square inches.

I have also run thrashing and flailing from yellow jackets. Before I could commence this discourse, I spent a few hours out under the night sky reacquainting myself with the constellations, like old friends. Sometimes I just spent hours playing my records. Sometimes I took my record players and CD players apart just to peek inside and admire the engineering of their incongruous entrails. Sometimes I watched Laverne and Shirley, or old movies, or Star Trek. Sometimes I sat in the dark and listened to the creaking of the old house.

I have lived on this blue orb now for about 17,600 days. And when I look around me and see the leaden dispiritedness that envelops so many persons both young and old, I know that if I die tonight, my life has been inestimably better than that of most of my compatriots. Additionally, my absence makes room, and leaves some resources for others, who deserve no less than I have enjoyed.

I would hope that all persons reading this can enjoy some of the aspects of life that I have enjoyed, as well as those aspects that I never will, and will take cognizance of the number of waking days he has remaining, and use them prudently.

To all that have given so much, much love and respect, John B. McLemore

When I heard the recitation of John B.’s suicide note, I was struck by its poetic style. Its images are vivid, thanks to John’s exacting and inventive word choice; it uses poetic devises like repetition and builds a meditative cadence; its subjects concern nature, astronomy, and consideration of what it means to live well — subjects taken up by the Romantics, Naturalists, and many other poets in the past.

But is this excerpt from a suicide note, written by an, until recently, undiscovered eccentric living in the backwoods of Bibb County, Alabama, a poem? And was the person who wrote it a poet?

To find out, I turned to an English and American poetry expert, Stanford University Professor Nicholas Jenkins — and my old “Poetry and Poetics” teacher in undergrad, who instructed me on the very devices that piqued my interest in this verse. He was also a fan of S-Town, and agreed with my initial reading of the note. “The qualities that make it poetic to me, I think, are the parallelism and repetition, the openness to the world, the expert and very precise vocabulary,” confirmed Professor Jenkins. “It’s in a different emotional and verbal space.”

We walked through the verse together, examining John B.’s phrases like mellifluous life and incongruous entrails. We considered similarities with other poets, and my professor agreed that John B.’s lines on astronomy and nature had a whiff of Walt Whitman about them. And though in form and style John B.’s suicide note bears no resemblance to a fellow American recluse Emily Dickinson, something in the mood of the verse, the “extremity and stress and crypticness and a woundedness there,” as Professor Jenkins put it, connected the two writers.

“When you’re thinking about influence, we don’t have to just think about how something is put together,” he explained, ever the teacher. “But also something more like the ‘atmosphere.’”

John B. reveals a lot of himself in this intimate suicide note. And dissecting the lines as poetry gave way to an even deeper, metaphorical understanding of the enigmatic subject. “I walked in solitude beside my own babbling creek,” recites Jenkins. “That could have been carved on his grave stone. He’s talking about not just the brook on his property, but also rippling stream of thoughts in his head.”

Despite these poetic qualities and the potential of poetic readings, Professor Jenkins was not comfortable calling John B.’s suicide note a “poem.” Instead, he deemed it poetic or lyrical verse. He felt that he needed to see the verse in context, as opposed to a transcribed excerpt, to call it a poem.

Additionally, John B.’s intention was important to him.  “It’s really hard to just think about aesthetic categories (is it poetry? is it lyrical prose? and so on) when it’s somebody’s suicide note,” he maintained. “It just seems to belong somewhat in a different area because it is painfully raw.”

But attempting to categorize this piece also gave way to a fuller picture of its author. “This is beautiful language, but I don’t exactly know what the form is,” he said.  “And maybe that’s part of the lesson of McLemore. He was this extraordinary person who didn’t really fit exactly into any context. You can’t imagine him living outside Bibb County, and you can’t imagine him really surviving inside Bibb County. Just like he doesn’t really exactly fit in anywhere, maybe the kind of writing that he did sits between genres, and borrows from all of them, rather than fitting neatly into one or the other.”

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John B. was a person who transcended categorization and fused different disciplines such as science and literature to inform his work. This reading of his poetry and his person echoes one of the distinguishing qualities of a genius, according to National Geographic’s recent investigation into the topic: “the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts.”

John B.’s biography, too, speaks to ways the public and science view genius. His endless reading, writing, clock-working, and building projects embody the Pearl S. Buck quote that the genius “must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.” That urgency often manifests as manic to his friends in the podcast. And when not creating, and lonely, he was a self-proclaimed depressive.

Mood disorders are an unfortunate trapping of the “artistic genius,” too. Which, according to Nautiluss investigation on the statistically confirmed connection between madness and genius, is due to the quality of cognitive disinhibition: “the tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out by attention because they appear irrelevant.” Sounds like the man who notices the exquisiteness and delicacy of tiny mosses and molds: entire forests within a few square inches.

John B. shares another tragic biographical detail with artistic geniuses: his suicide. William Styron points out in his seminal piece on depression “Darkness Visible,” before listing dozens of illustrious artists who succumb to suicide, “it has been demonstrated with fair convincingness that artistic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder — which, in its graver, clinical manifestation takes upward of 20 percent of its victims by way of suicide.”

In both his suicide note and the tragic action that followed, John B. McLemore aligned himself with the poetic geniuses that wrote verse before him.

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Professor Jenkins agreed that John B. was a genius in terms of his brain power. And, like poets, Jenkins noted that he had a gift for expressing himself with words. But as to whether John B. was a “poetic genius” of the romantically depressive variety such as Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton (who herself wrote a poem entitled “Suicide Note”), Professor Jenkins is wary of the idea behind the term.

“Poets are exceptional in the way they use language, but not in the things that they suffer from,” said Jenkins, disentangling great suffering from great poetry.

Professor Jenkins hesitated to categorize John B. as a mad, depressive, poetic genius both because he takes exception with the idealizing term, and because he saw John B., in a literary sense, as something more. “These terms restrict the meanings of what McLemore was articulating,” he posited. “Was he actually manic depressive? Was he depressive? Was he schizophrenic? Was he poisoned? Or was he a Southerner?”

Like Tyler Goodson and other Woodstock and Bibb County residents who populate S-Town, John B. had a hard life. He was a misfit, a queer man in the deep south, the sole caretaker for his aging mother, consumed with problems local and global; a man who needed to release his pain by getting his nipples repeatedly pierced and tattooed in what Brian Reed described as an “elaborate form of cutting.” Professor Jenkins saw John B. as the embodiment of these and other troubles that plague his hometown, “a kind of super articulate surrogate or avatar for widely shared problems.”

Considering John’s “genius,” Professor Jenkins also thought about S-Town’s closing scene, featuring about Mary Grace McLemore’s 1966 plea to the heavens to give her a genius, while rubbing her pregnant belly on the porch of her Woodstock, Alabama home.

“I guess the way I heard that, and interpreted it, was twofold,” said Jenkins. “We think of genius as meaning somebody exceptionally talented. But the other meaning of genius that survives is that of somebody who embodies the spirit of a place.”

In Latin, the term “Genius Loci” means the “spirit of the place,” its prevailing character or atmosphere. This is how Professor Jenkins thinks of John B. McLemore, “the idea of someone being an incarnation of something, someone who represents the specific history of a place.”

Is John B. McLemore the incarnation of Woodstock, Alabama? He lived there all his life, on property his great-grandfather seized in the 1800’s through theft and violence. He clung to the town’s past, reviling the tattoos and motorcycles he saw as corrupting invaders. But then, like the rest of the town’s citizens, he ended up covering himself in ink, in the end. And on his hundred-acre property he nurtured the natural world while marking the passage of time using ancient and ultimately deadly methods. John B. is dead, and his property will soon be paved over by a Walmart.

The most moving passages in John B.’s suicide note are those in which he describes his property: its flowers and trees, the night sky above it, the creaking of the old house. In his life and in his art, he vaunted the place he both detested and loved: Shit Town, Alabama. Indeed, it was his “spirit of the place” and his way with words in concert — the email subject line he wrote, “John B. McLemore lives in Shit Town, Alabama,” sent to Brian Reed — that initially captured Reed’s attention, spurred his investigation, inspired S-Town the podcast, and finally brought John B.’s work to a hungry audience.

“If you’re going to talk about him as a genius,” said Professor Jenkins, “to me he is as much the second — the genius of the place, of the ‘ground’ — as he is the artistic or technical genius in the first sense.”

A poetic genius? Perhaps. The jury is out on whether John B. was making poetry or lyrical verse. But it doesn’t much matter. It’s clear from both S-Town and his suicide note that John B. was a genius in both mind and place, in mentis and loci. And for bringing his work to us all, we are grateful to S-Town: the publishers and editors that John B. never had, but needed, for his work to see the light of day.

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