Saturday, July 12, 2008

Re-post from Feb. 22, 2005, on poets and insanity

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[February 22, 2005* the start of an extended riff on poets and insanity...]

Another hard thing in the writing world is, I must admit, the way some writers act, especially towards each other. Everyone in the writing world, especially the poetry neighborhood of the writing world, has horror stories. Some of them are so horrifying you could make them into cheesy horror movies. No, I mean real horror movies. This only gets worse when you really dig into "the field," so to speak, because sometimes "the field" is a graveyard.

Did you know that the great Victorian poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who had an affair with Fanny Cornforth, his beautiful housekeeper, felt so guilty over his wife's suicide that he buried all of his poetry with her? Wait wait—it gets worse. Then he realized his great contribution to English literature was in the process of decomposing along with the corpse of his wife, so he dug it up again.

The list of famous poet and writers who were suicidal, drunk, addicted, self-destructive, narcissistic, promiscuous, diseased, insane and so on is far too long to even start.

(On the other hand, I think there is an almost equally great tragedy in going to the opposite extreme and trying to make cultural icons out of poets and writers who are so relentlessly dull, inoffensive, and "nice" that you can't remember who they are five minutes after you meet them. We seem to be in a cultural moment that champions more and more of the safe and dull—poets who censor themselves so much that no one will ever have to worry about them censoring them in any way.)

Sadly, the poetry game in particular is great camouflage for crazy people. So I have to admit that I have been friends, and ex-friends, with some crazy literati and/or literary nutjobs. I learned what I learned the hard way.

But let me say this, first: some of the actually diagnosed schizophrenic poets that I knew were really brilliant (at times), and mostly very nice to be around (except for the antisocial nervous tics, the degenerative diseases, the logorrhea etc.) Genuinely crazy poets who know they are crazy (meaning: they can tell you exactly which drugs they are supposed to be on whether they take them or not) aren't necessarily bad at all, especially in contrast to those who think they are okay and are deeply disturbed.

I don't know if this one guy is still alive, so I don't want to give away his name. When I was twenty or so, he was forty or so, but he looked sixty due to his very hard institutionalization and "treatment" for schizophrenia in the bad old days of primitive psychotropic drugs. I met him through another poet (of course), and I had read one of his books, which had exquisite and beautiful lyric moments in it although it also seemed at times to verge on being an incoherent way out jazz improv with words. But even then it had some inner beauty and resilience. I really admired what he was able to do. So I was really shocked to see him looking withered, weathered, smelly, ragged, haggard, and gray. Worse, he was in nonstop highspeed raving mode, complaining about his degenerating teeth, eyes, and on and on. But as I listened to him going on and on, I was able to separate the poet from his illness somehow, and when he was out of breath I told him I really admired his poetry due to the gorgeous images and the musical quality in the lines. I was sincere when I told him that I was moved by the beauty of his lyric poetry.

Suddenly he stopped ranting, complaining, and suffering. I explained a little more about what I'd read. He paused and asked a few questions, just to be sure I knew what I was talking about. It sank in, and he felt a kind of relief or maybe a temporary release from all his grief. Someone had just recognized who he really was.

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