Saturday, July 16, 2005

This article is in the July issue of "Some Other Magazine" ( Vol.2) 2005.

Do You Have To Be Crazy To Write Poetry?by Doug Holder
For as long as I can remember, there has always been the romantic notion of the mad, or divinely inspired, poet floating around in the ether. While working at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility, for the past 23 years, I have heard and read about the legendary poets who paced the wards. Poets of the stature of 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. Some never recover from their illness.
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 toil and the turmoil of depression is not worth the creative insight one might lay within. In a Boston Globe review of The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton, I read part of a letter that 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, think straight, or even 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 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 (part of the brain) 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 from psychotic and clinically depressed patients in the midst of their illness was impoverished. Often when they were on the mend and or recovered, 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 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 in a review of Kramer’s book that “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.”
To me, that is the most inspiring aspect of writing and mental illness. I have seen folks ravaged by the disease, barely able to put a spoon to their mouths, pick up a pen, and write. When they do write, the illness loses, and humanity wins.
Douglas Holder is a writer in Somerville. For more about him and his work, please visit his homepage,

Sunday, July 10, 2005

I got word from Harris Gardner that the Boston National Poetry Festival is on , yet again, at the main branch of the Boston Public Library the weekend of April 8, 2006.
We were worried that it wouldn't be approved for its sixth year, but it came through. Look for further announcements!

Presa :s: Press of Rockford Michigan is releasing an anthology in the coming months of avant-garde poetry. ( "Inside the Outside") Hugh Fox was instrumental in advising Eric Greinke, the publisher, about poets to include in this anthology. I am proud to say I am included along with some very big names from the small press.