Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Best of, cont'd.: Poetic Narcissism and Depression

From 11/13/06:

I was plain wrong when I claimed a week of euthymia (good mood) yesterday; in reviewing my blog it was only four days. It felt like a week because I felt like myself again. Unfortunately, today I feel on thin ice and I’m anxious.

I got up yesterday and wrote my sonnet and blogged, which is my daily mental toilette. Later I felt restless. I couldn’t concentrate on the book I am supposed to review, or on learning the hieroglyphics of html. Finally at 1:30 PM I jumped in the van and drove south about forty miles on winding Highway 1 to the Garcia River. Three years ago in October I had netted a steelhead and a salmon at a deep part of the river, and I thought perhaps there would be some fish pooling around now. I didn’t get a bite, which is not unusual for the unluckiest fisherman in the world. I wear a hat that proclaims, “Fish Control My Brain.” I have since learned that that control means that I am constantly directed away from fish. If I’m there, they are not.

But the feeling of restlessness and irritability persisted as I fished. The landscape was overcast with occasional sprinkles; the bracken of summer had decayed into the color of straw; the leaves of the blackberry bushes had begun to turn red, imitating the dreaded poison oak, but I know the difference in the shape of the leaves. I saw a raven fight off a white-tailed kite over a territory dispute near the bluff above. Placid cows grazed high on the steep embankment along the river, and I thought it a miracle that they did not fall off for an unscheduled swim. I saw a beautiful red-tailed hawk.

I was entirely alone in this somewhat forbidding landscape, and not surprisingly, following my irritability, an angry irritability, melancholy descended. Was it for not catching fish? Was it my memory of fishing there three years ago that reminded me of all that had transpired between, our whole sojourn in that unmentionable country south of the border? In any case I felt like crying but controlled myself. When I came home Kathleen immediately spotted my change in mood. I can hide nothing from her.

This morning I woke up anxious. I held on to Kathleen as if she were a large stuffed animal for comfort. Eventually Kenyon stirred and I had to walk the old boy, as in his dotage he can easily get lost and confused. He stops sometimes, stands still, and exhibits the thousand-yard stare. I remember when he was young and frisky. Now I am a helpless participant in managing his decline.

The point is, my mood is still fragile. I could dive down from here. The self-critical thoughts have returned; I’m no good, I’ve never done anything in my life, yada yada. But I noticed another aspect of my illness, namely jealousy.

I’m jealous of the success of other poets and musicians. I feel somehow it’s not fair, that I’m good enough to be recognized. But even as I think this I castigate myself for my narcissism, since those with greater recognition, in general, have also striven harder to attain what they have. Other than a whole wad of publications on the net and a lesser wad in print, I remain a third tier poet, one of thousands who have not distinguished themselves from the herd. It is sad that the world of poetry works much like Hollywood, but them’s the cards, deal with it. I’m not submitting to anyone right now, a deficiency I need to correct. but sometimes it seems purely hopeless to try; I think my poetry is retro and the moment of its potential recognition has passed me by. Can I accept that without bitterness? Jealousy is the essence of narcissism and I am ashamed of it. But I must admit it. I resent those with greater success, especially when I think their verse is inferior. I try to tell myself that they earned it, but I can’t help believing they had lucky breaks. Take Wanda Coleman, for instance; what’s she doing in the second tier of poets? She is obvious and bombastic, though a good performer. Or take Charles Bukowski, from whom Garrison Keillor chose multiple entries in his anthology of poetry. I could go on, but naming names is always dangerous. You risk expulsion from the potential circle of venerable elders. I suppose my greatest achievement in poetry was when Dorianne Laux solicited me for an issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review and I had as much space as Billy Collins. To be solicited for a top flight journal is a thrill.

At 52 I’ve pretty much let my music and songwriting slide. I’ve let medical practice slide, though not by direct choice. Look: I’m being honest. The Bible advises that we pray for our enemies, for which a competitor in the small world of poetry might qualify, especially if I think their verse inferior to mine.

In my worst moments I’m so jealous I want to appeal to some objective cosmic judge for a decision. After all these years, from adolescence on, why have I not been able to master these feelings of injury? Those who succeed are not injuring me, only helping themselves. Why do I, in my worst moments, resent them? The answer is simple: I think I’m their equal or better, and that it just isn’t FAIR. What a ridiculous concept, that life and art should be fair. In my case it stems in part, no doubt, from being a middle child, a same sex second child quickly followed by my sister only 16 mos. later. Why did my older brother get more liberties? How come I couldn’t be his equal? It never dawned on me that it was just a difference in age that allowed him greater privileges. But I took his privileges as somehow diminishing mine. This is a problem I go through on the edges of depression. I wish I knew a cure.

I do remember one epiphany when I practiced in Palm Springs. At that time a Mercedes was the commonest car in the upscale desert. One day when driving I realized why others had Mercedes and I didn’t: They had earned their cars. I was not gypped; their cars did not diminish me; they had earned their luxury. Enough said. Or not enough.

My narcissism, which crops up when my mood is bent, embraces the ridiculous idea that the success of others, particularly others I think less talented, somehow takes away from me. This is plain silly. But it is one of the slippery slopes into depression again, as I must condemn myself for my narcissism, afterwards paralyzed by my perceived failure. Perhaps the only antidote for this is to simply accept that I have these feelings, justified or not, and that I need to keep working in the hopes of being recognized someday. “Don’t look behind, someone might be gaining on you.” But I am open to comment or commiseration regarding this psychological thorn, and I trust, among artists, that I am not the only one to suffer from it.

At 2 Kilorats, with Anxiety,



  1. Hey CE, I followed your blog some time ago—I think from the Gazebo. At any rate, I too feel the anguish of this post in almost every way. The fact that in my career, I had obtained certifications in the Information Technology field that the elders never had, and most likely were struggling to obtain while I was still in High School. However, I went on to College because that is what my family expected of me. So I did, and I lasted nearly four years. With a standing GPA of 2.3 I dropped out at the beginning of my fourth year because of a mental breakdown. I came home, to a broken home, to my Mother, second Stepfather, and my younger sister with nothing to show for the money spent. My certifications were now outdated and I could not find work in my respective field. I turned to writing sometime near the end of my reign at University and continued on into depression while at 'home'. My writing was mostly overlooked or thrashed on workshops, and I felt ostracized from the community as a whole. So I continued writing in private for my own therapeutic value. I took to working the factories or construction to help pay off my student loans and reconnected with a few old friends. These friendships quickly became hostile and passive aggressive as to who was really going to make it in the world. So I completely isolated myself again, and even now I feign to post on the workshops for fear of feeling out of place.

    I guess my point is: if you feel satisfied and happy with what you have created (in poem, song, or life in general) it should not matter what the collective community has to say. Let these outlets be your therapy and build from them a proper holistic self image. You may never be whole like you might have imagined, but at least you will retain a sense of self and dignity. Sometimes I feel these simple things can be enough.

    Best to you,

  2. Thanks, Josh, good advice!



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