Pity the placid bard. “Readers are disappointed by poets who aren’t at least a little mad, which is to say visionary, melancholic, tormented, debauched, or somehow awry,” writes Joshua Mehigan, himself a poet. But is poetry really the domain of the disturbed?
It’s true that poets and madness have always seemed to share close quarters. Addiction, mood disorders, and extreme eccentricity also crop up frequently. Think of Ezra Pound, whose anti-Semitic ravings during World War II landed him in a Washington mental hospital, or Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide at age 30 after years of depression.
Madness became part of the theater of poetry long ago. The English poet Lord Byron (1788–1824) once caused a stir by declining every course at a dinner party, requesting instead “hard biscuits and soda water.” (Neither being available, he consented to potatoes and vinegar.) When an onlooker asked a friend of the poet how long Byron would abide by the curious diet, the friend answered, “Just as long as you continue to notice it.”
Mehigan doesn’t deny that “some deep connection exists between ‘madness’ and the compressed thought and emotion typical of memorable art.” Invoking Wallace Stevens, he observes that “extremity, natural and artificial, often helps poets wrest something sublime from the ‘dividing and indifferent blue.’ ” And presumably sane poets such as John Ashbery and Jorie Graham “have forged styles that echo the dislocations of madness: fragmented language, surreal imagery, oblique thought, shifting points of view, violent emotion.”
While most people associate madness with psychosis, “only a small number of poets actually spend much time psychotic,” Mehigan notes. Psychic extremes aren’t conducive to good writing. “Madness is precisely the absence of the work of art,” the French thinker Michel Foucault observed. Mood disorders and addiction are more common, but disabling in their own ways. Mehigan has had his own mental troubles, including alcoholism and bipolar disorder. While his addiction made certain emotional and social experiences accessible to him, “I never wrote drunk, and I don’t see how anyone can,” he says. For him, poetry serves as “a set of tactics for offering my Best Self to the world”—the thoughtful and deliberative self he struggles to present in real life. In other words, writing poetry is the opposite of inebriation.
For many poets, the form does allow for an indulgence of sorts. It takes at least “a touch of egoism” to unveil one’s soul, Mehigan writes. Yet plenty of poets have “reached through self-regard to give the bitter world a little beauty and insight.”
Photo credit: Ezra Pound in Italy in 1945, after his arrest for treason against the United States via creative commons