Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Do you have to be 'crazy' to write poetry?

Robert Lowell with his family

For as long as I can remember there has always been the romantic notion of the "mad," poet or "divinely inspired" poet floating around in the ether.   While working at  a noted psychiatric facility,  outside of Boston for 36 years, I heave heard and read about the legendary poets who paced the  wards. Poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton suffered from severe mental illness, and were hospitalized at different points in their mercurial careers. Plath and Sexton met their end through suicide, and Lowell died in the back seat of a cab he was taking to visit his ex-wife in New York City. Since I have often worked with manic and clinically depressed patients over the years, and therefore have an intimate knowledge of the affliction; I can only write that the toll and the turmoil of depression is not worth the creative insight you might mine. In a review of "The Letters of Robert Lowell', edited by Saskia Hamilton, in "The Boston Globe," I came across  part of a letter Lowell wrote to the poet Robert Fitzgerald about his experience with mental illness: " ...terrific lifts, insights, pourings in of new energy, but no work on my part, only more and more self-indulgence, lack of objectivity; and so, into literal madness i.e. I had to be locked up." As with any experience in our lives, we can bring it   back into our own writing. But my question is, is it worth it? In the midst of mental illness, or a severe depression; the ability to concentrate, to think straight, not to mention to take care of one's most basic needs is severely impaired. Peter D. Kramer, the author of "Against Depression," and a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University-- writes that depression takes an actual, tangible toll on the brain. Indeed, MRI studies at McLean Hospital have shown that the actual structure of the brain can be altered due to past abuse and mental illness. It has been speculated that depression can cause the hippocampus to shrink, and may have a big role in the course of heart, and other related diseases; as well as cancer.

 Part of my job over the years at the hospital was to run poetry groups on some of the locked wards. For the most part the poetry that was shared was from psychotic and clinically depressed patients (in the midst of their illness) was impoverished. Often when they were on the mend  they were writing much better and even inspired poetry. They wrote equally well about their experience with their illness, as well as nature, and other less oppressive aspects of their lives. The experience of mental illness can be very good fodder for poetry, but I think if you asked these patient/writers if they would like to go the the depths of depression to mine material for their creative work, the answer would be a resounding "no.'

 Thomas J. Cottle, a Boston-area psychologist, writes " first, there is no evidence to suggest that depression is the cause of the enriched imagination, the basis, in other words, of the creative fount. People paint and write poetry in spite of their illness."

  For me, that is the most inspiring aspect of mental illness and writing. I have seen folks savaged by the disease, barely able to put a spoon or folk to their mouth--pick up a pen, and write.

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