I Thought You Were a Poet
Samuel Johnson, in his life of Dryden, reports that throughout the spring of 1686 the fifty-six-year-old laureate could often be seen strolling Leicester Field at daybreak, barefoot, in his nightclothes, skimming dew from leaves into a glass beaker. Dryden apparently ignored anyone who addressed him during these excursions. The beaker full, he would disappear into 44 Gerrard Street to work, in the same nightclothes, on The Hind and the Panther. No one is sure what Dryden did with the dew. Johnson admits uneasily that he is supposed to have drunk it, though Green and Giordani argue that he used it to boil gallnuts for ink. According to neighbors, Dryden sometimes leaned from his study window during work and in an inaudible whisper asked passing children or carriages to be quiet while elaborately pretending to shoot them down with bow and arrow. At 1:00 pm sharp, Dryden would scratch out his last five couplets, rise from his writing desk, pray, dress, and walk to his day job as Historiographer Royal, where he behaved normally. At day’s end he went home, dined with his wife, took laudanum, and slept with an upholstered wood block for a pillow.
In my experience, if a contemporary reader of poetry has never before heard this account of Dryden, it can add considerable interest. I know this was true for me, and I made the whole thing up. I like Dryden well enough (what I’ve read) and I don’t mean to suggest he’s not great, only that today, as Ian Ousby says in The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, he is often “admired but not quite enjoyed.” This phrase surely describes the reputation of most Augustan poets, and I wonder if it could have anything to do with their sense of balance and self-control, with their methodical technique and taste for grace and wit—in short, with their relative sanity. Part of the fun of a poet is rehearsing the legend, even if it’s false. In Dryden’s case, whatever gossip exists—his cruel taunting of Thomas Shadwell or his Catholic conversion—may seem tame if you’ve heard the one about the Blakes playing Adam and Eve in the garden. But poetic eccentricity is a game of continual escalation. Like the gossip it creates, it’s both sensational and boring.
Onward from Enheduanna, poets seem almost required to manifest some degree of psychic disturbance, whether as a true affliction, a poetic persona, or a pose. “Despondency and madness” were the expectation before Wordsworth, and reached pandemic proportions in the twentieth century. Readers are disappointed by poets who aren’t at least a little mad, which is to say visionary, melancholic, tormented, debauched, or somehow awry. The prodromal period in English-language poetry seems to have been the eighteenth century, otherwise known for its high appraisal of order and reason. But some minds we might imagine as tidy—Johnson’s, for instance—are thought to have been privately a little off. Things really got rolling with William Collins, Christopher Smart, and William Cowper, and then it was one small step to Thomas Chatterton, whose decision to drink arsenic at seventeen helped make suicide cool. (Henry Wallis’s Tiger Beat portrait shows the garret window ajar so that Chatterton’s soul can escape.) Smart was the eldest of this wave to put florid psychosis into his writing, but Blake made poetic capital from it, positioning himself not as a lunatic but a seer. On the continent, Hölderlin was smitten by both Apollo and madness. Now the gate stood open, and out flew Byron, Keats, and Shelley, and John Clare, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, who followed Chatterton, along with all Miss Flite’s other birds, including Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.
In Paris, as everyone knows, Gérard de Nerval walked his lobster Thibault on a ribbon through the Palais-Royal gardens. American lunacy found its apotheosis in Poe. And where Blake’s madness had mirrored Ezekiel’s, Baudelaire, Lautréamont, and Rimbaud sought transport in dissipation. By Modernism, the greatest poets are like the villains on the old Batman tv show, each known for his or her own inimitable brand of eccentricity, whether it’s Marianne Moore’s tricorn, Cummings’s typography, or Pound’s broadcasting career. This is also the period when sane poets begin composing poetry reminiscent of schizophrenia, like these lines from Gertrude Stein:
Do I see cake Do I do the reverse of acting
Yes Do I feel sensually deceived
thoughts in mental suggestion in increase of
senses in suggestion
in in deception deception deception
vanilla lemon as lemon vanilla as the beginning
of in in suggestion suggestion suggestion
suggestion of the suggestions as the
beginning of in suggestion
Real despondency and madness also continued, with a host of poets whose lives have earned wider repute than their poems. Meanwhile, many poets said to define our period, from Eliot to Ginsberg, and from Ashbery to Jorie Graham, have forged styles that echo the dislocations of madness: fragmented language, surreal imagery, oblique thought, shifting points of view, violent emotion. Surrealism, Dada, Imagism, the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, Language Poetry, and Flarf all adopt one or more of these characteristics as constitutive. But the power of this general stylistic tendency can also be felt in the work of popular poets like Mary Oliver, of traditionalists like Anthony Hecht and Donald Justice, and perhaps also of most mfa students.
On the subject of poetry and mental illness, I can’t pretend to impartiality. First, I and many of my closest friends and acquaintances are poets. Second, I’ve been extensively treated for what insurance companies resourcefully call “behavioral health” problems. While I have often behaved in behaviorally unhealthy ways, I should add for clarity’s sake that I am also diagnosed with disorders thought to be caused not by behavior at all but by inborn neurochemical imbalances. Many of my closest friends exhibit “behavioral health” issues as well, sometimes diagnosed and sometimes not, but plain to everyone. As someone preoccupied with both madness and poetry, I’ve often wondered what’s lost in the gap at the center of the collocation “mad poet.”
The above-quoted passage isn’t really the writing of Gertrude Stein but, according to Dr. Silvano Arieti, author of Interpretation of Schizophrenia, that of “a very regressed schizophrenic.” This is the last time I’ll lie for effect (here).
People still think of poets as an odd bunch, as you’ll know if you’ve been introduced as one at a wedding. Some poets spotlight this conception by saying otherworldly things, playing up afflictions and dramas, and otherwise hinting that they might be visionaries. In the past few centuries, of course, the standard picture of psychopathology has changed a great deal. But as it’s often invoked, the idea of the mad poet preserves, in fossil form, a stubbornly outdated and incomplete image of madness. Modern psychiatry and neuroscience have supplanted this image almost everywhere else. It’s true that these sciences are still young and still vexed by Freud’s ghost. But, in spite of horrors like insulin shock therapy, lobotomy, and overmedication, they’ve given us the crucial knowledge that insanity is not caused by supernatural forces, lovesickness, or wrath. They’ve dispelled unhelpful belief in conditions like spirit possession, tipped uterus, astral misalignment, and humorous imbalance. True, older medicine created those beliefs. But science, unlike magic, has the advantage of changing course, and slowly there emerge life-changing legislation and therapies. In 1961, Michel Foucault worried about the consequences of this new paradigm, but fifty years later the Stultifera Navis sails upstream to the heart of Poetryland. In his conclusion to Madness and Civilization, discussing Artaud, Nietzsche, and Van Gogh, Foucault writes: “madness is precisely the absence of the work of art.”
I had a philosophy professor, once, who visited the ussr in the late fifties for a debate. He met people in the countryside who fretfully asked whether he thought Sputnik would discover Heaven.
Fashion, which hyperbolizes everything until it’s both excessive and compulsory, must have something to do with the literary dimension of poetic madness. Still, nothing could be more obvious than the fact that some deep connection exists between “madness” and the compressed thought and emotion typical of memorable art. When I haphazardly list twenty-five poets I’ve known—most, as it happens, with books, and some with big awards—the group includes two suicides, two attempted suicides, twelve on meds, three who’ve been committed, and two treated with electroconvulsive therapy. There are fifteen addicts, mainly recovering (eleven alcoholics, assorted coke and heroin addicts, and an opium addict). Only three have no mood issues or addictions. But these aren’t simply occupational hazards. Extremity, natural and artificial, often helps poets wrest something sublime from the “dividing and indifferent blue.” For many poets, it is crucial, whether as a pitiful love obsession or a belief that one is actually Lord Byron.
Could I be conflating “visionary” and “mad”? Maybe. But I’ve never had a vision. I’ve never known anyone who has had a vision without drugs or severe illness. I therefore assume that most visionaries are either psychotic or shamming, or that they are imitating other visionaries who are psychotic, shamming, or imitating. If this assumption holds, it may be that much recent visionary poetry is written by imitators imitating imitators imitating imitators imitating imitators worshipfully imitating a few originals. Madness is our rosy cheeks and starry eyes.
An old artist friend, given to psychotic adventures involving Nazis and the kkk, sometimes said he missed being delusional. But I don’t think he made much art during episodes, and when I last saw him, in 1998, he was living in Central Park. I’ve known several people who suffered psychosis, and he alone felt nostalgic about it. The others fight it or float forever in an alternate universe. Another psychotic friend, dead now, sometimes said things that were arrestingly poetic. She told me that when she left the hospital she wanted to spend some time with me. “You know,” she said casually, “like a billion years.” But her mind was chaos, and soon we couldn’t communicate. I’ve only been approximately psychotic. Once, years ago, alone at my parents’ house during an acid trip, I tried writing. Before long, I lost interest. A week later I found the scrap of nonsense under my bed and felt embarrassed. If deliriants mimic psychosis better than lsd, I don’t see how anyone could write while psychotic. In life, it is important to know that a graffito is not a cryptogram from the Justice League of America (my artist friend) and that the helicopters overhead don’t pertain to you (pcp, 1988). But there is also a more forward-thinking argument to be made about the importance of perceptual limits in art. Illimitable imagination is sensational and boring, too.
When Lear is mad, he speaks prose.
While florid psychosis might be people’s first association with madness, only a small number of poets actually spend much time psychotic. Some, like Clare, Hölderlin, and Nerval, had extended bouts of insanity. But most poets we might think of as disturbed—like Poe, Rimbaud, Crane, or Plath—probably suffer mainly from mood disorders or addiction. Some are bipolar and therefore at risk of psychosis during mania. But most never experienced the kinds of disruption Clare did, whether we call them psychotic or visionary. If the typical poet’s profile combines mood disorder and addiction, then I am roughly typical. If my story is worth telling, it’s because my experience hasn’t been especially poetic. My problems are inescapably there, even with medication. They inform all my actions. In nebulous ways they foment poems that may or may not matter. In vivid ways they sometimes make even a very good life bad.
Public confessionalism isn’t my area. Many of my poems are third-person, and most of the first-person ones are monologues. Face to face, if I trust you, I’m rambling and far too open. Impulse control is a problem. I’ve deliberately avoided this mode in my writing. At least there I have the power of revision. In this case, however, I have no desire to be cryptic: According to my psychiatrist, whom I queried for this essay, I have “an atypical bipolar affective disorder, mixed type, primarily depressive.” He adds, as if I didn’t know, that I have add. In my experience, shrinks seldom offer diagnoses without prompting. I visit a non-md therapist, too, and despite our long acquaintance he avoids labels even when asked. Maybe this is backlash from the scientistic euphoria that through the sixties kept my maternal grandfather stoned on phenobarbital and Miltown. But it’s still possible to get an empirical-minded appraisal, and in 2007 I saw a neuropsychologist for a few weeks’ testing. Her impression was much the same as my psychiatrist’s but includes “Anxiety Disorder Not Otherwise Specified” and “Nonverbal Learning Disorder.” Finally, like hundreds of other writers, I was drunk most days from 1991 to 1999, and this is noted as “Alcohol Dependence, Sustained Full Remission.” On the bright side, as my neuropsychologist points out, the number of diagnoses isn’t proportional to severity. I’m encouraged to view myself in “phenomenological” terms and leave the discrete diagnoses for professionals. Thus everything comes down to the tautology of Popeye and John Clare, and all the ominous comorbidity amounts to a one-off syndrome that might be called, to loved ones’ grim amusement, Joshua Mehigan Disorder. Symptoms include bad feelings, distractability, and compulsion. For a more human angle, I asked my Mom the first time she knew I had psychological problems. “Well,” she said, “it might’ve been the time when you were six with the hedgeclippers.”
If we scale down past the embarrassing but common ugliness of unoriginality and narcissism, before we reach Leopardi and Jeffers gurgling just below the water’s surface and Sara Teasdale and Attila József turned into trees, we enter the ring of poetry hell where whole armies of shades spend eternity groveling blindly in the mud. Like countless drunks, I longed to be a drunk. But I’m pleased that when I got my wish I knew I was a ridiculous cliche. Alcoholism is the zenith of sensational and boring. I never idolized Charles Bukowski or Dylan Thomas and even then resisted chronicling my exploits in verse. Liquid derangement and oblivion were the reward for hours of writing. And waking up poisoned and guilty to sit down at my desk with the mind of a goldfish and try to imagine things was, for me, like church. But I never wrote drunk, and I don’t see how anyone can. Alcohol gave me emotional experience, but so did playing on the skins team in gym class. One steady benefit was social, though I said and did thousands of things I’m glad to have “forgotten,” and once passed out as an august poet told me about operetta (“Young man, are you rolling your eyes at me!?”). But at least the first several drinks made me sociable—something I haven’t yet learned to be while sober.
Quitting alcohol boldly foregrounded my prime reason for seeking oblivion: reality. Everyone occasionally feels dissatisfied with reality, but some people are born with a vicious jones to break free from it. A related force may have compelled Ariosto’s storytelling and Stevens’s imaginative mania. In another vein, it might’ve led to poems like George Crabbe’s The Village or Gwendolyn Brooks’s A Street in Bronzeville. For most, the compulsion isn’t a desire to enchant a patron or evoke a troubled society. It begins with garden-variety stuff, sharpened to a point in my case and in many others’ by a mood disorder. Mine spurs me and furnishes a worldview. But because it also sometimes makes me awkward and disagreeable, I’ve grown to consider poetry as, in part, a set of tactics for offering my Best Self to the world. This doesn’t mean I write poems to make friends or be straightforwardly charming. But because forethought and discretion rarely appear in my personal life, I like to cultivate them in my poems.
However brain problems shape me, I must add that I never think of them as a blessing. It’s dna, and I could’ve been a carpenter or scientist instead of a poet. The above-mentioned grandfather, treated for manic depression, was not a bard with pet chimpanzees and rays coming from his eyes but an unassuming chemist who wore gray flannel and started a polyethylene bag business. Like Artaud, Roethke, Plath, and thousands of non-poets, he underwent shock treatment, and like many others whose names we know, he killed himself. My mother, nineteen, went to wake him and found him reading The Maltese Falcon, dead from a Darvon overdose. No one told me how he died until I was twenty-five. But suicide has reach. Imagine a movie where the first five minutes are a heart-stopping action sequence and the next two hours are long takes of extras sweeping glass and mopping blood.
Everyone is stupid and horrible. Every human communication is an invidious lie. This includes newspaper headlines and strangers’ smiles. Poets and poetry are worst of all. Halfhearted death fantasies flash through my head all morning. It’s the will of an evil universe that I drop a nickel. Waiting at a drive-through for a milk shake—fleeting joy—I turn on npr looking for news. Instead, nice people discuss cooking. They refer always to “soups,” apparently shunning the mass noun “soup.” “Soup” must not sound important enough. A caller says the best way to clean kale is with a dish brush. He elaborates for two minutes. Furious superiority fills my chest. Two women courteously advise against wasting any part of a vegetable. Leonard Lopate, whose show I like well enough when I have not missed several doses of lithium, asks with deep interest, “Do we call chard a winter vegetable?”—an iambic pentameter I notice, laughing aloud. And then, although alone, I scream obscenities at the radio and pound the steering wheel. People stare through the drive-through window. I continue screaming at the healthy, engaged people on the radio, then giggle, then feel a burning in my nose as if I might sob. Lopate’s voice continues like a spoonful of warm honey. I fantasize about shuffling the foodies’ priorities by leaving them in Alemão with only some kale and a dish brush. Later, arriving home with my jumbo milkshake, before I take a single sip I spill it on my bedroom carpet, then stomp up and down in it, screaming “fuck” over and over again, until even I can see there’s something wrong.
One problem with publicly declaring that I have a mood disorder, addiction, and so on, is that some poets and other natural iconoclasts will consider it a type of bragging, as if I were a guitarist claiming to have special fingers. This alone may shed light on the attitude of poets toward mental illness. Many poets are also aspirant lunatics. Real issues notwithstanding, I’ve been one myself. I nursed my aspirations by courting mayhem and adopting a style of dime-store surrealism. I’ve known other aspirants who dressed like hobbits or like Richard Hell circa 1980, who told jaw-droppingly obvious picaresque lies, or who learned to ape the superficial effects of one or another far-out but established school of poetry. Some behave at readings like priests conducting the Mass of St. Sécaire. Others stare like Christopher Walken over the audience’s heads. Who are we really? I think of Rimbaud, who after behaving irrationally for years abandoned poetry to become a “businessman.” One early example of Rimbaud’s attempts at sensory dérèglement is the synesthetic sonnet “Voyelles.” I’ve read that Rimbaud wasn’t really a synesthete. I am. All my letters, numbers, months, and days have permanent colors, fixed throughout my life. My vowels are a red, e green, i white, o white, u white. The last three aren’t very poetic, I know. My synesthesia is the perfect emblem for how I feel about other wholly subjective derangements. It’s kind of neato, but after two minutes why should anyone care?
On the other hand, the unvisionary attentional and learning issues described above have shaped me considerably as a poet. Along with my refusal to speak, learning issues were what caused my kindergarten teacher, a demogorgon with a beehive and inch-long red nails, to tell my mother I was “retarded.” They diminished my parents’ ambitions for me until by high school everyone was happy if I simply went. On my senior math exam, I scored 8%, which the teacher said was for the skull drawings. There was only one solution: something artsy. I tried music, visual art, and writing. Poetry seemed to have the fewest special requirements. I remember at twenty knowing nothing about add but reflecting happily that a lyric poem is just the length of a tv ad. While I may now spend hours on a line, back then I spent only slightly longer writing a poem than others did reading it. And because poetry is one of the zaniest arts, if I hadn’t consummated my artistic purpose by the time I became bored—whatever. Later, when I got serious about learning my craft, it was much easier to reverse-engineer a sonnet than Bleak House. The music of verse also cuts through the interference of add, and “visual-spatial-motor” deficits make memorization the most effective way for me to grasp a poem. This helps me internalize technique. But probably the worst part of having these problems is that I’m the least prolific poet I know.
In Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers, Rogers recounts Byron’s mysterious behavior at a dinner party. The poet, whom Rogers invited sight unseen, refused every course before requesting “hard biscuits and soda-water.” But Rogers didn’t keep these on hand. Finally, Byron agreed to eat potatoes with vinegar. Days later, Rogers ran into a mutual friend and asked how long Byron meant to follow his unusual diet. “Just as long as you continue to notice it,” replied the friend. After Rogers’s party, Byron had apparently eaten a large dinner at a restaurant.
I’m proud, I hope not inordinately proud, to say that I rate below average on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Then again, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which can include deficits in empathy and introspection, isn’t usually what people mean when they say “narcissist.” Most probably mean “self-centered asshole,” and, if I’m honest, I must sadly own up to matching that description for straight years at a time. Again, the private consequences partly account for my wish to avoid the mistake in poems. A close friend, also a poet, once asked me why I write poetry, and I replied that, among other things, it gives me a chance to make my narcissism palatable to others. She laughed. Her husband laughed. It was no joke. It seems to me that narcissism is ineluctably at the heart of poetry, maybe of every human enterprise. One-third of people will think I’m an idiot for bothering to state this. Two-thirds will think I’m repugnant for suggesting that poetry isn’t soul magic. But, however magical your soul, doesn’t its unveiling imply a touch of egotism? In lyric poetry, especially, some degree of narcissism seems unavoidable. Even Dickinson and Hopkins sought readers at some point. Now let us observe a moment’s silence for the Unknown Poets, who have defeated narcissism and won oblivion. Then, since there’s nothing to build on there, let us quickly turn in gratitude to their egotistical fellow poets, who reached through self-regard to give the bitter world a little beauty and insight.
For the record, I’m not inherently opposed to mad poetry or to the many poetic styles that co-opt various traits of madness as poetic convention. In truth, madness fascinates me, and many of the poets I love make good strategic use of difficulty, ellipsis, and fragmentation. King Lear is my favorite piece of writing. Among the poets I hold most dear are Cowper and Clare, both actually psychotic. Among the lyrics I repeat under my breath on the subway are surrealistic poems by Stevens and Bishop, knotty poems by Brooks and Edgar Bowers, and poems of psychic extremity by Dickinson and Berryman. Difficulty and mystery help capture my refractory imagination by putting it in an active role. On the other hand, I like a poem to produce the feeling of some external acuity, not simply of my own imagination gliding over a deliberately slippery surface. My natural tendency has always been to externalize the muddle and tumult of my psychopathology and view them as the unjust rules of a cruel universe. This creates a strong sense of being subjugated, which in the end has given me an essentially anarchist turn of mind. I always need to know why. Impenetrable logic and obscure rules trouble me, and I resist granting unchecked madness, real or metaphorical, the authority a reader must cede to a poet. I also naturally distrust the status quo.
I dreamt once of going to meet T.S. Eliot. A friend of mine appeared and said, mischievously, “I have a surprise for you.” Smiling, he led me to a stadium complex, then through an adjacent citadel of cramped retail stores, and finally into a huge glass and cement atrium with a black and white checked floor. We walked silently to a door in the curved wall and down some stairs into a sublevel below the stadium. After walking for a long time in, of course, a dark corridor, we arrived at another door and entered. Behind it was a sunlit yellow room with basement windows below the ceiling and dark wood moldings. Through an arch there was another, darker room like a monastery cell. An attendant dressed in a nineteenth-century habit greeted us and motioned toward the far room. On a solid wooden examination table lay Eliot, alive. His slight frame was covered by a blanket up to the chin, and his small head occupied the center of a large down pillow. I was as shocked in the dream as if it had been real life. Eliot’s eyes were open, and he moved a little, tremulously, though he did not seem aware that anyone was there.
“But he must be 110!” I said.
“Yes! He is!” my friend said.
I stepped closer. Eliot peered up at us and began muttering. I turned my ear to his mouth and strained so that I might save something of the experience to tell it later. But it was no use. Other than the sound of his bassy, crackling whisper, I couldn’t make anything out. I looked up at the attendant and asked, “What is he saying?! Can you understand him?”
“That is The Waste Land,” said the attendant. “Don’t you recognize it? I thought you were a poet.”
Poet Joshua Mehigan grew up in upstate New York and earned a BA from Purchase College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of the poetry collections The Optimist (2004), winner of the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize,...