Poetry | May 10, 2012

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Funny, how certain things lie untouched in us for years, how we learn to evade them, like stones tossed in the hopscotch box of memory. In some ways, I think these evasions, these buried parts of ourselves we’ve learned to walk around, wedge us into a certain way of being or at least limit our understanding of who we are.

For instance, when I was fourteen, I started hearing scraps of music in the air. Little meaningless fragments: commercial jingles, the refrains of popular songs repeated endlessly. Driving with my mother once, I heard “We Are the World” playing faintly on the radio, but when I reached to turn the dial up, the radio clicked on beneath my fingertips. I guess I could have told my mother what was happening, and maybe she would have driven me to the hospital right then, found me some specialist or psychologist or maybe just told me that it was no big deal, that it would go away eventually. But I didn’t say anything. Instead, I locked away that bit of information about myself in the same place where I’ve locked away so many other fragments of myself. I don’t mean to pathologize myself or to suggest that I’m any more or less disturbed than anybody else. We all have these pieces of ourselves that we haven’t completely integrated into who we think we are. What I mean to suggest is that one thing poetry can do is turn the most secret self into a kind of muse, or at least open a space where strangenesses and darknesses can be admitted to, examined and maybe even reintegrated into a more wholly coagulated self.

I suppose this smacks of confessionalism and all its connotations (is there a poet who is more out-of-fashion than Robert Lowell?), but I do think that poetry can help us understand the oddities of our own minds. And maybe one reason so many poets write about mental illness is that both poetry and psychosis have a way of rubbing away the boundary between the actual and the invented worlds. In a way, hallucination and delusion literalizes what only seems metaphorical or surreal in the poem. Lowell, Plath, Sexton, and Berryman were far from the first poets to suffer from mental illness, but what makes their poems so powerful for me is that they aim their lens at the peculiarity of their own minds, and in this way the subject of their poems is united with its source.

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