Tuesday, June 12, 2012

UNCUFFING THE 'TORTURED ARTIST'



According to this article, scientists are moving closer to understanding the links between certain mental illnesses and creativity. That Schizophrenia and Bi-Polar illness are more common among writers and poets has been pretty well established for a while. Kay Jamison who both studies and suffers from Manic-depressive Illness, has written several books including 'Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament'. The list of writers who have famously committed suicide is long (and severely depressing in its own right). Interestingly enough, poetry is the only art form where scientists can't tell the output of a healthy person from one with schizophrenia. This is in part because the same kinds of tangential word associations that are common in the writing of paranoid schizophrenics are also common in many types of poetry, but most especially in so-called 'Experimental Poetries' such as Language or Elliptical poetry. The big difference is that healthy people know that their metaphors and puns are just that, metaphors and puns, while the schizophrenic insists that they must be understood literally. The mad scientist is a common cultural trope, one that was very commonly used during Cold War cartoons for children in fact. Now there's evidence that many high achieving scientists and mathematicians may in fact be (at least slightly) mad. I still can't figure out if this is good news or bad. One the one hand it confirms something many have suspected for a long time. On the other hand, what's being confirmed is a stereotype that isn't always helpful. Creative people have always been given a lot of leeway to be 'quirky' which is sometimes just enough latitude to function in 'normal' society and sometimes enables mental illness to go undetected and/or treated. I call it the "Pet Unicorn Theory" since unicorns are amazing and mythic and must be treated special or they'll jump the fence. There is no question that the mania I experience when I am highly obsessed with something is a drug-like high that allows me to be much more prolific and creative. I recently pulled out a poem I had written for my favorite 'tortured artist' Edgar Allan Poe, and was revising it, trying to make it work by appearing to border on madness and yet still make sense. In its current form it looks like this;

TOO POE

Melon call ya-
seams such suite
Tsar roe

and is nothing more than the sentence "Melancholia seems such sweet sorrow." enjambed like a haiku and written in all homophonic puns, a riff off of Shakespeare (parting is such sweet sorrow) and a nod to Poe's famous bouts with depression. 'The Raven' is my favorite poem, hands down. Like him I find myself drawn to art that is both profoundly sad and beautiful, especially music. Whether it's Coltrane's 'Lonnie's Lament ' or 'Alabama' or Rodrigo's 'Concierto de Aranjuez' or Sinead O'Connor's version of 'Nothing Compares to You', melancholy beauty does it for me like nothing else. This poem by Catherine Wing has become a recent obsession to the point where I walk around reciting it to myself;


The Darker Sooner

Then came the darker sooner,
came the later lower.
We were no longer a sweeter-here
happily-ever-after. We were after ever.
We were farther and further.
More was the word we used for harder.
Lost was our standard-bearer.
Our gods were fallen faster,
and fallen larger.
The day was duller, duller
was disaster. Our charge was error.
Instead of leader we had louder,
instead of lover, never. And over this river
broke the winter’s black weather.


Methinks Poe would have been proud to have called this his own (Robert Johnson too). The music, the rhythm, the way the Blues suffuses every line, every word is mesmerizing to me. And yet, I'm a very happy person. I certainly don't walk around depressed all the time (black attire notwithstanding). But the playlist I listen to most often on my iPod is called 'Top 25 Songs of Heartbreak'. I practically worship the current 'Queen of Melancholy Beauty' Sade Adu. What's up with that? Maybe I'm immunizing myself to depression by wading in its dark shimmery waters. I think we'll keep that as our standard explanation for now. One thing I do know is that creating (in whatever art form) helps to keep me sane (to the extent that I can claim to be) and there have been many very talented artists for whom it was simply not enough, including my father and famously Sylvia Plath and Charlie Parker. I count myself very lucky in that regard. Here is a poem I wrote about Bird's famous struggle with addiction and mental illness;

ALGORITHM OF THE BLUES

Ornithology revolves the room
at 33 1/3 RPMs.
Charlie Parker solos
from the basement of a mood.
Bird puts a hurting on each note,
flattening them like bottle caps
under the steel heel of his hunger.
Slivers of wind slice through his lungs,
invite our hearts to hear how
the Blues can make pain a Philosophy.
Birds understand the futility of words,
that's why Charlie's tone
is Testimony,
translating complicated phrases.
Bird finds a phrase and fractures it,
sharpens a splintered note into a needle,
and plunges it into
the bulging vein of his need.
Parker's pain is hypodermic.
Bird is a junkie people laugh,
drowning in a bubbling spoon,
but is the song over?
Yardbird invites the heart
to hear how the Blues
can make laughter a Philosophy.
He blows a light-blue melody
unexpected as ketchup on corn flakes,
loops a line of funny chords,
threads a silken solo
through the I of his need,
trying to phrase a fluid tune
so it solidifies into a salve.
His hunger still bubbles
(smack on a spoon).
The horn keeps making its case
to solve his cerulean mood.
But the needle
is in a spiraling groove:
and there’s
twelve bars
welded across every door
out of the basement
of the Blues . . .


Until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon).

3 comments:

Poet. Writer. Teacher. Human. said...

"I still can't figure out if this is good news or bad."

Michelle said...

There is also a new book called "Tortured Artists," which is about the link between pain and art. Poe is in it, of course. The author's name is Christopher Zara.

Joel Dias-Porter said...

Thanks Michelle, I'll check it out,