Madness in the New Poetry

"Is it only coincidence that poetry in the last two decades has come into the full uses of madness as of an instrument?"

I have no wish to play down the relevance of madness to poetry. In England the two have long been allied, never more fruitfully than in the age of the French Revolution, when the roster of mad poets carried many of the illustrious names of the day: Christopher Smart, William Collins, William Cowper, and, most illustrious of all, William Blake. In the last twenty years American poetry and madness have entered into an alliance closer still.Madness can be construed—and is by some poets — as the regular and inescapable concomitant of the reach beyond reality; and sanity is construed as the dullness of those who refrain from reaching.

Is it only coincidence that poetry in the last two decades has come into the full uses of madness as of an instrument? After the First World War many poets decided, rightly, that to be true was more important than to be understood. Not to be understood, moreover, ceased to be the mere common and perennial fate of the poet, a fate to be suffered. It became a source of pride, as though inaccessibility were the seal the Muse set on the brow of her chosen; and the criticism of contemporary verse came to value the disguises of complexity for their own sake.

See also:
"The Mad Poets Society" (July/August 2001 Atlantic)
Plath, Lowell, and Sexton, and the mental institution they shared. By Alex Beam


Soundings: Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead" (April 11, 2001)
Frank Bidart, Peter Davison, and Robert Pinsky read Lowell's poem aloud. With an introduction by Peter Davison.

Complexity took on emotional companions: alienation, revolt, even madness. If The Waste Land of T. S. Eliot seemed to speak in feline riddles, the Cantos of Ezra Pound spoke in ravings—ravings of prophecy or of madness, as you like it. Conrad Aiken explored the disguises of the unconscious. Wallace Stevens explored the magical origins of art. Did the poetry of the twenties and thirties, in its cultivation of fragmentary style, themes from the unconscious, broken imagery, and the shattered line, eventually lend its techniques in the next generation to the utterance of the mad? Or has the century itself forced upon us the incoherence of substance and style? In an age of revolutions do the mad write prose or verse?

Questions like these assume a clear line of demarcation between the mad and the sane which nobody is quite qualified to draw. Which of us is always sane? And which of us, no matter how mad, does not here and there capture, in a perception of the utmost sanity, in an utterance of the utmost brilliance, a truth about the world or ourselves which the even-tempered man, for his very lack of provocation, is likely to pass over?

Then, too, how do we separate fragmentation of manner from demented substance? Again, nobody is qualified to separate the two, as though one were the nakedness and the other the clothes. Even so, many readers of poetry, unfortunately betrayed by a generation of milk-and-water English teachers, lost sight of any difference between style and substance, and eventually between swans and geese. E. E. Cummings is to this day sadly attacked by readers of blurred discrimination as the most advanced and incomprehensible of poets, when actually he looked at the world through eyes so simple, sentimental, unclouded, as to make even Tennyson look intricate by comparison. Cummings' typographical devices, often no more than mechanical aids to the eye and ear, have frazzled reader after reader who had long since decided (or had it decided for them by a teacher of English) that there is only one way for poetry to behave and dress itself. Yeats, unlike Cummings, held to traditional appearances but flowered for a second time when the promptings of madness and old man's lust battered against the evenly spaced bars of the iambic verse that had been his possession from boyhood. From youth to age, Yeats's poems, under the pressure of their content, show the gradual development of clangor and dissonance as dreams of the rose and the gray sea give way nightmares of desperation and decay.

Is madness a conflict between imagination and reality? (Theodore Roethke would call it "nobility of soul at odds with circumstance.") Perhaps, but what else but that very conflict gives rise to poetry? Where madness enters in we may expect incoherence; but let us take care to discriminate between the incoherence of not knowing how, and the incoherence of reaching beyond. Madness without poetry can sometimes, through the excitement that rises from it, arouse in the reader feelings much like those that would be aroused by poetry without madness. Longinus defined the difference as between the sublime and the beautiful; but twentieth-century psychiatric madness has all too little of the sublime about it. Where it engages the poet too closely with himself it tends to damage poetry, for the self should be the reservoir of poetry rather than its shallop. Poetry has suffered long from the preponderance of the idea that it exists to scratch the poet's itch. When madness enters in, the poet may try to cure himself upon the page, or to drive himself on to further intoxications of madness. If madness damages poetry, poetry must be defended. The poet as poet bears responsibility for the excellence and wholeness of his poem more than for his self's wholeness, no matter how mad he happens to be. In examining some of the books of verse published in the last year, I have kept in mind poetry before madness. Let us watch the outcome of each struggle.

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Peter Davison (1928-2004) was The Atlantic's poetry editor for thirty years.

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