Sixteen poets, sixteen essays about mental illness and poetry. In this nicely produced book, editor Richard Berlin has brought together a diverse range of poets united by two common factors: mental illness and poetry. While each has his or her own story to tell the essays address some pertinent and challenging questions, not least of which is the effects of mental illness on the creative process. A related question is about the effects of pharmacological and psychological treatments. In discussing these and other issues the contributors come across, in Harry Stack Sullivan's words, as 'more simply human than otherwise'. Therein lies, perhaps, the enigma of the creative person with mental illness. In addition to whatever burdens mental illness imposes, for the artist there is an added dilemma, the expectation that art must flow from an uncontaminated mind, one that is free to explore where it will. Of course artists have traditionally altered their minds through the use of one psychoactive substance or another, but drugs prescribed for mental illness are another matter. Might they not reduce the artist to merely mortal status? Instead of 'better than well' as suggested by Peter Kramer, might the artist on Prozac not be 'less than luminous'?
Berlin is himself a psychiatrist and poet, and it was his twin interests that led him towards this project. He's not the first psychiatrist to consider the question. Researcher Nancy Andreason reported that 80 percent of 30 attendees at an Iowa Writers' Workshop had a mood disorder. Berlin also reminds us of the enduring public perception that depressed mood in a poet is no bad thing. Kay Redfield Jamison has claimed on the basis of historical evidence that there is a link between bipolar disorder and creativity, a claim that Berlin regards with skepticism. He cites Albert Rothenberg (Creativity and Madness, 1990) as concluding that the only distinguishing characteristic of creative people is motivation: creativity is fuelled not by a visitation from the Muse, but by drive and determination. One of the contributors to Poets on Prozac Gwyneth Lewis talks of the 'close connection between poetry and creativity' but adds that 'it's not the crudely compensatory kind usually described by casual observers.' Others talk of reflecting on their experience of depression or psychosis once they have the wherewithal to do it, something denied them when they are unwell. Berlin's approach of letting each writer tell their own story has significant advantages over that of Jeffrey Kottler's Divine Madness in which gives a professional interpretation of the life and work of artists. Poets on Prozac makes no attempt to construct a general theory, no matter how much we might feel we can take from Berlin's book.
The genesis of Poets on Prozac was an invitation to write a book on poetry and psychiatry which later became a more open invitation to write a book on 'whatever you want in psychiatry'. Fortunately, Berlin likes poetry. Criteria for inclusion were that each contributor had to be a poet with a substantial publication record and to have had psychiatric treatment. Other than that it seems contributors were free to say what they liked about the influence of psychiatric treatment on their creative process. As Berlin states in his introduction, and as many of the poets confirm, poetry requires honesty with feelings and experiences, so Berlin could be assured that his contributors would pull few punches.
The book offers a range of perspectives, from those with decades of experience struggling with addiction, depression, voices and visions, to younger writers with perhaps ten years of such experience. As varied as these experiences are, there is a consistency to them. Mental illness is a problem to be lived with, it hinders rather than aids their creative process, and they would rather be without it. There is another theme: that of drawing on the experience of mental illness to inform their poetry. This is no anarchic inflammation of the imagination; it is a sober reflection, when well, on times of low mood or wild thoughts. Gwyneth Lewis calls depression her 'dark gift', something that acts as a fuse in her life, cutting the power when she's overdoing it. Lewis is no romantic when it comes to depression, but she recognizes it as something she lives with.
Oh yes, I'm broken, but my limp
is the best part of me. And the way I hurt.
For Lewis, poetry is a call that must be obeyed: 'If you don't obey [poetry] as a force in your life it will tear you to pieces.' Regarding any idea that poets are above the damage wrought by alcohol, Lewis is emphatic when she says 'I used to keep notes of my altered states of mind under the influence of drink in the hope that they would offer startling new images for poems. They didn't. It was impossible to decipher my handwriting and I kept throwing up.'
If depression is a creative force, this is not necessarily in the inspiration derived from plumbing the depths of the soul. For J.D. Smith, depression 'turned me away from gregarious and time-consuming professions such as selling real estate or running for office which might have distracted me from poetry altogether'. Smith talks of poems written in states of depression which he needs to censor in his 'healthy state'. Such poems might be revised or even abandoned, if they 'fail to carry their own lugubrious weight'. Like Gwyneth Lewis, Smith uses his experiences of depression, in some cases to gently mock himself:
Overshadowed by a blade of grass,
soaked by one rain drop,
struck down by a dandelion seed.
Carried off by a sparrow
that will soon despair
of the bitter taste in the flesh,
the millstone's weight.
It is not possible to do justice to all the contributors to Poets on Prozac. Whatever general points may be made, the stories are singular, the voices unique, and the writing as crisp and refreshing as you would expect given the credentials of the authors. Each chapter provides different insights. Ren Powell is a teacher and poet with bipolar disorder. In a breezy, forthright chapter she recounts her experiences with changing moods and the vagaries of treatment with medication. Her literary success, she writes, 'is as much despite my disorder as because of it.' Jesse Millner spent fifteen years drinking and feeling guilty, then twenty years sober and feeling guilty. He is literally a 'poet on Prozac' something he credits with lifting his chronic low mood. But he still feels guilty, even depressed. In a chapter called 'Chemical Zen' Andrew Hudgins wonders about the influence of pharmaceuticals on his writing. 'The question is, of course,' he writes, 'how does one think about the effects of a drug with a consciousness that has been changed by the drug?' Hudgins has no fondness for medication. He thinks it's helped him and he enjoys writing more. But he's comforted by the thought that it hasn't changed his writing.
Not every poet finds a way of using medication that works. David Budbill is one who gave up on drugs, preferring to find his own way of living with his Angel of Depression. This includes yielding to depression when it recurs. In a lovely passage on The Writer as Receptacle he draws on the Tao Te Ching to commend (to men and women) the feminine qualities of passivity, acceptance, receptiveness. Later he praises the 'absolutely un-American' qualities of laziness and sloth. Using a suitably poetic image, Budbill understands his depression to be akin to the dormant period of a tree in winter. It is not simply a passive time, it is a gestation period, in which new thoughts are conceived, to come to fruition with the thaw of a lift in mood. He wonders about psychotropic drugs, and how they might suppress the 'dormancy some call depression'.
Vanessa Haley offers the tragically ironic image of watching The Wonderful World of Disney with her mother, while her father sat at the dining room table packing cartridge shells. She describes dissociation, having watched her father shoot the family dog:
'Everything turned black and white and gray, and I rose up through the bare trees, higher and higher, until I saw everything from a great distance, and the crescent of pink tongue lying on the dog's thin black lips became so small I couldn't see it anymore.'
Such powerful writing might tempt the reader to believe that a poet could write, or at least imagine, their way out of depression. But with each of these chapters we realize that poetry is not that kind of gift. When poets are clinically depressed they can't write, and they find it hard to imagine themselves otherwise.
Haley is an English professor turned psychotherapist and she draws a parallel between psychotherapy and literature: 'For what is reading and writing if not an honest attempt at sympathetic identification? And what is the purpose of psychotherapy if not to speak one's truth and to be heard and understood?' For Haley, writing is more than creative expression. She cites novelist Louise DeSalvo who describes writing as 'the therapeutic resurrection of the lost self.' This relationship between psychotherapy and writing is shared by Haley's therapist Frances. After Haley showed Frances some of her work, Frances commented 'now you are the author of your life.'
Poets on Prozac doesn't provide answers so much as inspiration. The book shows that good poets also write vigorous, engaging prose. Richard Berlin has done a marvelous job of showing us how ordinary poets are; the selected poets have shown us that mental illness shares with other experiences a capacity to reveal our humanity.
© 2008 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: firstname.lastname@example.org