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?"
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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.

John Berryman's 77 Dream Songs (Farrar, Straus, $3.95) is a forbidding piece of work, but very remarkable. It seems to be a kind of inner dialogue, part in dream, part in waking, between several of the poet's voices: one the white, clever, injured, priggish Henry, another the dark, tolerant, chuckling Mr. Bones. These poems are rightly called dream songs. Their incoherence, their fragmented syntax, their baby talk, their namedropping, their assumptions of familiarity give them the strength of informality and the weakness of an unquenchable subjectivity. The reader, therefore, finds himself ridden by bewilderment and feels foolish that he is not—cannot be—as mad as the poet's dreams are. Since I, like most people, am very interested in my own dreams and not much in those of others, I come to these poems with a decided handicap.

Yet I find as much to admire as to be vexed at. While I respond to the lack of order, the perversity, the self-pity much as I imagine others may, with righteous impatience, yet the handling of the three six-line stanzas which make up each song is fluid, fascinating, never routine, never rhythmically sloppy. John Berryman is one of the few contemporary poets to deal in more than surface fashion with the confrontation of white man and black man: in these songs, dealing as they do with the selves we know mostly in dreams, he frequently shows us the black man inside the white man, with Mr. Bones chaffing Henry, and Henry, less often, rattling Mr. Bones. The author approaches death, in rhetoric and idea, with the unflinching courage of one who can imagine worse things. He deals with insanity, hospitals, injections, and ravings as though they were ordinary facts of life; perhaps they are. Here is a characteristic pair of stanzas in the manner of Mr. Bones:

I'm scared a lonely. Never see my son,
easy be not to see anyone,
combers out to sea
know they're goin somewhere but not me.
Got a little poison, got a little gun,
I'm scared a lonely.

I'm scared a only one thing, which is me,
from othering I don't take nothin, see,
for any hound dog's sake.
But this is where I livin, where I rake
my leaves and cop my promise, this' where we
cry oursel's awake.

Among the best of these dream songs are blues, blues for Robert Frost, for Theodore Roethke, for John Berryman. Order, decision, wisdom, beauty are not often to be found, for the search here is for the self and for the selves within the self. That search is not an easy one, and, it could be argued, not a proper task for poetry in the first place, but here the dream songs are:

Hell talkt my brain awake.
Bluffed to the ends of me pain
& I took up a pencil.

Poems, unlike fiction, usually strike in tight shot-patterns. In any collection of poems, not more than a minority are likely to strike home unless one happens to find oneself temperamentally attuned to the poet—though some poets have the power to overpower, notwithstanding. I find that Alan Dugan's new book, Poems 2 (Yale University Press, $3.50), misses me most of the time. His first book, which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, moved me most when the author was writing in the guise of veteran. The same is true of this one. Where the poet is most personal and most explicitly "disturbed," he seems most banal:

Three times dark, first in the mind,
second in January, the pit of the year,
and third in subways going up and down
the hills and valleys underground,
I go from indoors to indoors indoors,
seeing the Hudson River three times a week
from my analyst's penthouse window....

However, in his disguise as veteran the author speaks in a voice that gives his poems distinction and a way of walking. Carriage is the beautiful profit a veteran garners from his campaigns: a breezy respect for the requirements of reality, a wearied alertness and grace, a rank skepticism about the ordering of society. Listen to the fine sourness in this short poem called "On Breeding, From Plutarch."

After the victory he loped
through town, still bloodily
unwounded, grinning like a dog
aroused, and with his sword
hanging down from his hand.
The Spartans yelled, "'Go screw
What's-her-name just as you are,
crazy and stinking with war!
Her husband will be proud
or say he is, when she,
yielding, conceives a noble child."

Those words "or say he is" carry the power of Dugan's irony, and it is on those four words that the whole poem turns. It seems odd that Dugan writes best on war and on memories of war. His poems on other subjects carry in their hide a permanent wrinkle of disgust, suited to a veteran ready for retirement, but not necessarily the best expression for a man talking of civilian matters. I can't help feeling that the permanence of this expression keeps Dugan away from further poetic reaches in himself, like a man who can only imagine himself Napoleon.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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