Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Depression, Mania and Poetry

I can't make sense of readers' statistics--posts I think interesting are often poorly attended, and others garner large numbers. My "Best of" has been a success, I expect because many are searching the web for help with their mood disorders. Then Wednesday I posted a couple of poems and the meter went up again. Here's what my blog says about itself:

"Ongoing personal narrative by C. E. Chaffin M.D., FAAFP, Editor of The Melic Review. Widely published as a poet, critic and essayist, he began this blog as therapy but fears it has a larger audience than his other works. As an unapologetic manic-depressive (bipolar), he also hopes his adventures in mood fluctuation may be of some benefit to others so afflicted."

The blurb implies poetry but does not outright state it. My general audience divides into those interested in mood disorders and those in poetry. That 20% of name poets suffer manic-depression blurs the borders between the two. Here's a short list: Christopher Marlowe, John Clare, William Blake, Samuel Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Hopkins, Crane, Plath, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, and John Berryman. The list is much more extensive, these are just from the top of my head. But I have written a poem about this phenomenon:

For Example

I do not recommend geniuses as models:
Coleridge the laudanum king,
Sylvia born too late for Auschwitz,
Roethke the manic ballerina with the body of a bear,
Hart Crane reciting to the cod,
Ernest sucking on a steel cigar,
Ginsberg hysterical naked procuring boys
or Pound blaming everything on the Jews.

Emily died a virgin without taking orders,
Sexton became the Jesus of the Housewives
then killed herself to fill the hollow.
(I don't mean to devalue the drunkenness
of Berryman and Bukowski or forget
that Dylan Thomas drank himself to death
because he found it easier than poetry.)

No one wants to hear about a healthy genius,
because the world needs to believe
the great must suffer greatly, as if
only Icarus flew above those jealous eyes
and Daedelus never landed.

(published in Interface; also in my new book)

I think the chief gift of a mood disorder for poets is loose associations, even dissociation, a certain liberty of the mind that issues in unseen connections between what we observe and experience. It's as if the normal mental filters that feed rational thought have been suspended for creative purposes. You can't just grind a poem out by thinking about it: it must be born, thrive, grow, and finally achieve adulthood--the point at which further revision is pointless. Thus the dissociative tendencies issue later in applied craft, and Voila! A poem.

And what drives people to write poetry more often than not? Grief and loss. The poetry of joy is neglected by comparison. Non-poets attempt poetry because of love as well--in other words, what drives folks to attempt poetry at all is deep feelings. That some are better than others in expressing such feelings should come as no surprise; that is merely the gift of language, and many can write passably. What distinguishes a poet is the knack of saying something in a memorable way. One of the best compliments I've received as a poet is the statment, "I felt like that but I could never have said it so well." Bingo! What poets are supposed to do.

Raw feeling expressed is not poetry. Wordsworth called poetry "emotion recollected in tranquilty," but that doesn't entirely wash--sometimes poems are written in the grip of emotion and survive to excellence, but only because the poet was well-exercised in his craft. Furthermore, to say something fresh requires a knowledge of what poetry went before, else cliche' will inevitably raise its hoary head.

In severe depression it's difficult to write poetry at all, much less poetry that lasts, because the last chapter of despair is numbness--the inability to feel at all, at least feel in proportion to circumstance, as the feedback loop of depression goes on autopilot and the whole personality is dominated by the disease. Here's an attempt that was born from a depression, also in my new book:

For the Record

I am myself, even in the dark
without mirrors or clues.
I may be as inconsequential
as the point of a fading penlight
but I am not this feeling
of being buried alive.
If I fall through the ice
I am not my hypothermia.
I am not my heart's vacuum's
cruel absence of presence.

There are times this seems specious,
as if I were a Jesuit preaching in a sewer,
hoping echoes could convince me—
but all I have is this distinction.
I hold it in a cup like Christ's blood
as I fall through infinite separations.
I am still here.
I write this for the record.

To write during mania or hypomania is much easier, the words simply flow like water, good words, lots of them--but mania may impair editing activity afterwards, as one becomes so enamored of one's voice that it's too much labor to take months to perfect the initial outburst.

I hope I have not turned off my audience by too much promoting my book.

Thine at 1 Kilobunny,



  1. I was going to add to your poets' unifying characteristics that each died at a young age, but then I started looking them up only to find it's not so much true, not at least with in the ones you listed:

    Marlow 29
    Clare 71
    Blake 69
    Coleridge 61
    Byron 36
    Keats 25
    Shelley 29
    Tennyson 83
    Crane 32
    Plath 30
    Jarrell 51
    Lowell 60
    Roethke 55
    Berryman 57

    I had forgotten about Theodore Roethke. Somewhere I have a book of his poems. I'll have to look it out again. Many years ago I heard Garrison Keillor read half a dozen or so of them. What a difference a good reader can make.

  2. Masale.Wallah6:36 PM PST

    Thought I'd bring this to your notice :




  3. Dear Masale,

    That's a nice synchronicity. My poems are quoted at the beginning and end of Professor Martin's book and I've even blogged at her site by invitation. She once told me she thought I knew more about the disease than anyone she knew--but I'm sure she meant that in a holistic, not an academic sense, as I have both suffered it and studied it.

    Small world, eh?


  4. Anonymous3:10 PM PST

    ...when you have something to promote, and you do - I say Promote...

    Nice to come here for a visit, and stay awhile. I don't often do that.

    You're probably tired of people saying this...You're Great...or if you prefer, here is my mini review:

    After reading many fine poems by Chaffin, this reader can only write that he is impressed with this poets style, and in praise of his honesty.


  5. Dear Poetman,

    Thank you so much for you encouragment. One unheralded aspect of being an artist is self-doubt, and I suffer it as much as any. No matter how many publications I know I can do better, and I find relief in the process. In the process I am not competing, nor am I aware of potential publication, I'm only striving to wrestle one poem to excellence. And that's where the fun is.

    Thanks for your mini-review!


  6. The tingle talks
    Reached inside of
    Loss, me.

    I reached, too.
    What is the skin
    Touched to obscene

    Relief, what is it
    This deep, crunching
    Gawk, called upon.

    Underneath, I run un-,
    Shallowing or tripped,
    Stagnant and entombed.

    What I dreamed of? Low
    Well, of exactly, cut
    Off now. Here we are:

    Sound, or, ground, I'll
    Never be able to tell how
    Is listened to, and thanks.

  7. Nice poem, Tim! Another depressive gem.


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