Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 9: Mental Illness & Poetry

First, let me be clear that, while I am sympathetic to the subject of people with mental illnesses writing poetry as an effective form of therapy, I am not sympathetic to bad poetry, no matter who wrote it, or why.

Second, I am unsympathetic in the extreme to the stereotype of the "mad artist," the unbalanced creative individual, the crazy poet, and the entire constellation of related stereotypes. While there are sound and true archetypes underlying some aspects of these stereotypes, the stereotypes themselves are offensive to artists who do suffer from mental illness: because stereotypes are easily-repeated signs and masks that prevent us from seeing the truth of a person's experience. Stereotypes are cheap and easy categorizations that substitute for genuine engagement.

Third, there remains a great deal of taboo and stereotype surrounding the subject of mental illness. It is perhaps something we prefer to discuss by stereotyping it, because that makes it safe, and Other: I could never be like that crazy person over there! In fact, however, it is often a matter of degree. What we judge as insane is often just an extreme version of a state of mind with which we ourselves may have had personal experience. The taboo is around admitting that we are not so very different from the "insane" Other, so we don't want to talk about it, for fear of being contaminated, and sucked down into madness ourselves. Taboo is about purity and danger, ultimately. We fear that, in fact, we are vulnerable to contamination by the madness of others.

Arnold Mindell has done extensive work, in his process-oriented psychology, with clients who would be labeled insane, ignored by most traditional therapies, and rejected by the group in general. In his book City Shadows, Mindell describes how process-oriented therapy does not see people as a priori sick, but as individuals experiencing those extreme states with which all of us are familiar, to some degree. City shadows are, in the Jungian sense, the shadows of large groups: the repressed and unrealized unconscious of the group, rather than just the individual. Some "mentally ill" people openly live and act out these city shadows, usually unconsciously, for the sake of the group: they take on the group's dark side, and act it out. Then, the group rejects the person, and projects their fears and anxieties onto them.

So, having laid some ground rules on our position about what mental illness is and is not, the question comes forward:  Can one write poetry about mental illness without it falling into the trap of therapy-poetry or journal-poetry or confessional lyric?

I think that, yes, it is extremely difficult to write from personal suffering without it becoming a confessional lyric or therapy-poem or journal-poem. I think is difficult to achieve such a poetry, and yes, rather difficult to discuss, because of the minefields of personal, emotional involvement with the issue. (I don't think political correctness helps us here; I think PC mostly reinforces the taboo about discussing it.) I've been personally attacked, once or twice, for daring to address the issue, so I wade into the discussion with intense interest and not a little wariness.

I think there's a real and important use of writing (poetry, etc.) as a tool for personal growth and personal healing. I write that way a lot of the time. I think a great deal of therapeutic benefit can be gained from all forms of artistic self-expression. Sometimes a good venting or ranting, in a poem, essay, story, or piece of music, is very healthy.

But I also think there's an important distinction between journal-writing and finished poetry.

There needs to be a distance, no matter what that distance consists of, between event and evocation. Perhaps the distance consists of artfulness; perhaps it consists of memory, as Wordworth suggested. While one might always wish to honor the healing-process behind the (therapeutic) writing, how might one also point out, as a critical poet, that the poem produced might, well, be a failed poem? Therein lies the minefield. This is one of those areas where poets are often unable to accept criticisms of their poems, because they are too close to the writing; justifiably, perhaps, they care too much. But that does tend to shoot down any possibility of critiquing the poem, as a poem, separate from any personal therapeutic aspects.

The act of writing a personal therapy poem, for myself, can be very satisfying, and can be a bit of writing I come back to later to see if I have changed since I last went to that place. I do re-read back in my old journals, albeit not very often; occasionally you do discover something that could be re-made into a poem; an old dream; a passing moment, observed. But I also recognize, as a critical poet looking back over his own work, that a lot of what I wrote in the heat of anger, despair, and depression, just isn't very good as poetry, so I tend to not inflict it on anyone. I neither present it nor publish it, at least not without considerable revision. It can stay in the journal, where it began and where it belongs.

I am also aware that there is a distinction, I believe a very important one, between what we label as "mental illness" and what might be in truth personal, spiritual crisis. Essential reading here is Stan and Cristina Grof's pioneering work on how spiritual emergence can become spiritual emergency.

I myself have experienced spiritual emergency and the dark night of the soul, at various times in my life, and have been acquainted with numerous participants in the systematized support of the former. I have written about my experiences in numerous poems and journals; but I tend to write poetry archetypally and obliquely, because I dislike the tawdry melodrama of most confessional lyric poetry. I would rather not wallow in it, even though I realize that I have just outed myself about it; rather than collapse into it and be consumed, I prefer to seek to use it as fuel for art-making. This is one way to find that necessary distance; I'm sure there are others.

I am well aware that there is overlap between clinical depression and the dark night, that they are very easy to confuse and misinterpret from an outside vantage, and that they do sometimes appear together. Andrew Solomon has written extensively about depression and acedia, the "noonday demon."

Are either depression or the dark night the "cause" of the other's "symptoms"? That's very tricky ground to negotiate; most therapy systems I've encountered, however, don't even ask the question. Except for some of the transpersonal psychologists, and some rare Jungian artist-therapists such as Janet O. Dallett, questions of spiritual emergence in the context of mental illness are usually overlooked in favor of cheaper and quicker forms of therapy, such as antidepressant medications. The difficulty I have here is when the tools of medical psychopharmacology are used to (mis)treat those individuals who are suffering spiritual crises, rather than medical crises. While it may be very hard at times to discern between the two, I think that discernment is essential for the patient achieving wholeness and integration; Mindell and others would likely agree.

In terms of poetry and mental illness, I wonder at times if, as Wilfred Owen said a century ago, the poetry is in the pity. I don't believe Owen meant any sort of easy, sentimental connotation to his use of the word "pity." I believe he meant compassion: pity in its deeper, more spiritual sense.

So, can a valid poetry appear from within mental illness? Certainly.

Has it, though? I think that remains an open question.

As I have stated before, as a poet I feel that the poetry of the "self" needs to be gotten away from, after having had its day in the spotlight since the early Romantics minted the ideal of "self-expression." We have had a great deal of confessional lyric, and we have gone so far with it, that some of it has fallen into mere solipsism: the "you can't feel my pain" school of browbeating poetry, for one. Not to mention hordes of teenage women imitating Sylvia Plath, and the distaff hordes of teenage men imitating Artur Rimbaud.

At this stage of the poetry game, I believe that writing from the self-expression/confessional stance does much harm to the fabric of community, in the ethical, psychological, social, and even political realms. One reason I choose to write as much as I do in haiku, haibun, and their related forms, is that these forms traditionally lend themselves to transcending and effacing the "self," the personality-ego. There are simply too many poems being written nowadays that are too wrapped up in the self.

I would welcome a poetry that discusses, and represents and depicts, mental illness as well as some of the prose texts mentioned above are able to do. So far, though, most such poetry still tends to be therapy-poetry, and journal-poetry. I would welcome something genuinely authentic and healing, on an archetypal and universal level, rather than on a merely personal, ego-aware level. I'm still waiting.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Spiritual Emergency said...

A favorite by Theodore Roethke...


In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature, weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks--is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is--
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.


© Theodore Roethke


Much thanks for the recommendations on Arnold Mindell and Janet Dallet.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

My pleasure.

And this particular Roethke poem is one of my favorites of his, ao thanks very much for posting it here. It's highly relevant.

Cheers—

2:14 AM  
Blogger Spiritual Emergency said...

Likewise, you are most welcome. That particular poem was passed to me after my "breakdown" and was so similiar to what I had experienced within that space that I wanted to weep, as if I had somehow rediscovered a long-lost friend who knew me intimately.

I have dabbled in poetry writing myself on occasion although I've written so few that I couldn't possibly consider myself a poet. However, I have great appreciation for the art. To a large extent it was poetry and music that lead me through that experience...

Frequently, a third thread would erupt to dangle a clue and beckon me to follow. More often than not that clue came in the form of music, poetry, or a written passage of work that had resonated within me for months without my knowing why."

Story as a Vehicle of Healing


In hindsight, I can see that the poetry, prose or music was giving voice to aspects of myself that could not speak. These voices of the muse served as hooks upon which portions of myself had become snagged, and these snags were clues that lead like a trail of breadcrumbs, into the heart of that experience and back out again.

I still find poems that snag me, in a different way now though. Like Roethke's poem above, they speak to the profoundness of that experience and a place where remarkably few people ever go...

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

To Juan at the Winter Solstice


Good poetry, really good poetry that is, is substantially more than words on a page -- it is an experience and perhaps most important, it is a human experience. I like the way Jungian, Marion Woodman sums up the process...

I think of the soul as feminine, because it's the receiver--in both men and women. The artist, for example, has to have a receiver and just hopes to God that the spirit will come and touch into soul so that a poem will come out of that union or a piece of music or art. It's in that surrender to the transcendent, or however you want to call the spirit energy, that art is created.

Empowering Soul Through the Feminine

11:08 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree that great poetry is more than just the words on the page: there's something more. It's hard to define what that something more is—attempts to answer that question are the source of a great many literary theories. I tend to prefer the psychological and spiritual aspects, as I think that is more genuinely able to approach an answer, than any discussion of craft. Nonetheless, good craft also supports a great poem: it's the infrastructure, if you will.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Spiritual Emergency said...

Nonetheless, good craft also supports a great poem: it's the infrastructure, if you will.

Of course an ego is also a structure of sorts; it lends integrity to the psyche just as mood and parameter lend structure to the body of a poem. To experience true egolessness however, is to lose one's personal sense of integrity. The self fragments, blurs, melts away. This produces a mystical experience but it doesn't necessarily produce good poetry.

I have struggled, and continue to struggle to find the words to express that non-linear experience within a linear framework. Perhaps that's what makes works such as Roethke's poems above so exceptional. He's managed to capture that experience so well.

I have yet to read many of your own poems although what I have read, I appreciated.

Admittedly, I haven't encountered many individuals who identify with a personal experience of spiritual emergency. I was curious as to what helped you move through that process but I suspect that your answer would be similar to my own -- poetry, prose, music, perhaps one or two exceptionally good friends, and clinicians like Mindell who could recognize the order within the disorder.

At any rate, I feel I'm pulling you back into an old post when you clearly have new posts to attend to. I've enjoyed the exchange and will no doubt swing in to peruse more of your poetry.

Regards.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Spiritual Emergency said...

One more comment...

I read this.

It reminded me of this.

Andrew Harvey has a beautiful piece written on the Dark Night of the Soul. If you've not read it, you may enjoy it: The Sun at Midnight

10:48 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

No worries. I don't mind being pulled back: at least someone is reading this stuff!

I ahve posted very little about this topic here, and am reluctant to get too far into it here. I view this Dragoncave as a repository for more finished essays, and poems, about the creative arts. Most of the pieces I post here have begun as riffs, ideas, and critical commentary originally written elsewhere; then later gathered here, and developed into more coherent, complet essays. I sort of feel like I'm compiling something like a book of essays here, for now.

I tend to write more about matters of mysticism and spirituality over at the Road Journal on my website. I have certainly read Andrew Harvey's Sun at Midnight, along with most everything else he's ever published. I think I might be missing one or two of his published books, at most. I find him very inspirational. If you've never listened to his audiotapes, I recommend them highly.

How do I get through? I endure.

That's a simplistic way to put a process that largely consists of holding on. I endure. I often dislike it, but I do it anyway. I get guidance from a lot of directions: the wisdom literature of mysticism, worldwide; creative work; reading sacred texts; meditating; I'm currently reading through Jung's Collected Works for the second time; I get a lot from people like Dr. Caroline Myss, who I appreciate for her no-bullshit attitude about mysticism; her audiotapes are what I most often listen on long drives cross-country; I have a whole long list of music I listen to, to get me through—music is my central art, and closest to my soul, and the art most able to touch me to my core—but it's too long a list to post here. And so on.

You do whatever works, and you keep looking for things that help.

All the Spiral Dance essays were written at these times, for these purposes.

I do hesitate to get oo far into this, on this blog, though. As i said, much more of this stuff is over at the Road Journal instead. My hesitation is mostly because I resist blurring the main purpose of this blog—I have little use for "I fed my cat today" type blogs, or similar confessionalist meanderings—the purpose here is to write about creative work, and closely related topics. I have nothing to hide, and I don't care what people think, but I don't want to muddy the waters unnecessarily. So, I'll dip in from time to time, but again I refer interested readers to the Road Journal.

Thanks again—

—AD

1:41 AM  
Blogger Ros Barber said...

Very interesting post. I disagree with you on a couple of points, but not many. The only thing that I'd really have to argue with is your belief "that writing from the self-expression/confessional stance does much harm to the fabric of community". You might have to be more persuasive on that point! But I agree that there's a lot of very bad self-indulgent poetry out there, and that it gives poetry a bad name, but so does poetry that is so detached from the self, and so oblique, that it fails to communicate. Both increase the public perception that poets are creatures to be ridiculed. Haiku is good, though, for effacing the self. I wrote a haiku series over the summer and it felt cleansing.

I might take your final paragraph as a writing prompt - it's an interesting challenge. Write about my own experience of depression without ego, and with compassion? I'm far away enough now from my own long dark night of the soul that it might be worth a shot.

Nice blog Arthur. Hope to drop in again sometime.

5:06 AM  

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