Just below her Ozymandias post [see below], Michaela Cooper links to this entry (from mid-2002) on the Suddenly Very Popular Cup of Chicha:
Those who suffer from mental illness tend to like the madness-art association. I'm one of those people. Here's why:
1. Depression creates the type of interiority that modernism worshipped and literature continues to value. Depression might not have created the language of interiority, but depressives, borrowing from that language to explain their illness, learn that language well.
Which triggered the urge to write something down on a topic that's been on my mind recently: the seeming disappearance, from contemporary literary and poetic circles, of The Elaborately Troubled Poet.
For a time, in the wake of the Second World War and through the 1950’s and 1960’s, Elaborately Troubled Poets [ETPs] were all the rage: Lowell, Sexton, Plath, Berryman and more raised their status as walking wounded to high art. Dylan Thomas flamed out spectacularly, drowning in his own handcrafted butt of malmsey. Hemingway and Fitzgerald occupied a similar niche among the novelists. There seem to be no comparable figures now -- creative artists admired for their artistry but at the same time watched by the public at large in much the way one would watch a particularly picturesque train wreck -- at least not in the literary realm. The nearest contemporary equivalent that comes to mind is from the realm of pop music: Kurt Cobain. It is too soon to tell whether Cobain will have the sort of staying power in the cultural imagination that the ETPs have shown; he has the advantage of having worked in a medium that commands a wider audience than poetry.
The ETPs have maintained public attention to varying degrees. Robert Lowell, with the publication at last of the Collected Poems, is enjoying a (brief?) vogue of renewed attention, and appears in danger of being declared overrated. (I've never warmed to Lowell myself, so I'll leave that judgment to those more knowledgeable than I.) Sylvia Plath seems never to have fallen out of style, and is getting a renewed push from yet another round of biographies (with and without Ted Hughes, not I think an ETP himself) and from being portrayed on film by, of all people, Gwyneth Paltrow. Anne Sexton seems not to draw as much attention currently, but at least managed to become the backhanded subject of a fairly good song ("Mercy Street") by Peter Gabriel. But what of John Berryman, my personal favorite of the sad sorry bunch? He seems not to have nearly the profile he once did. The principal poetry-bloggers make little or no mention of him -- although Henry Gould at HG Poetics mentioned him this past June whilst scorning one of Ron Silliman's recurring jabs at "the School of Quietude," Henry referring to "the bizarre 'quietude' of scholar-poet John Berryman (have you read his essays - or his poems - or is he just another running dog of the quiet establishment?), which made it to the cover of Time."
I cannot get enough of Berryman's Dream Songs, which I find myself pulling down from the shelf several times in any given year. While all 300+ Songs are written in roughly the same stanza, syntax is stretched and bent and meters are picked up and dropped on an ongoing basis such that monotony never sets in. (This despite the fact that large stretches of the poem grow out of Berryman's battles, in and out of hospitals and traveling around the world, with alcoholism and the depression that ultimately sent him leaping from a bridge over the Mississippi. His insistence that the poems were about ". . . an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry . . ." was never taken entirely seriously, nor should it be.) As good an example as any -- and a vivid portrayal of what the Puritan sermonizers would call "raging fleshly lust" -- is Dream Song 69:
Love her he doesn’t but the thought he puts
into that young woman
would launch a national product
complete with TV spots & skywriting
outlets in Bonn & Tokyo
I mean it
Let it be known that nine words have not passed
between herself and Henry;
God help Henry, who deserves it all
every least part of that infernal & unconscious
woman, and the pain.
I feel as if, unique, she . . . Biddable?
--Mr Bones, please.
--Vouchsafe me, Sleepless One,
a personal experience of the body of Mrs Boogry
before I pass from lust!
Many poetical clubs being kept in the air there, metrically and syntactically. The first line of the final stanza, for example, odd as it is is nonetheless a nice bit of iambic pentameter. The inverted, near-Elizabethan diction of the opening stanza contributes to the cynical humor of its metaphor (the international advertising campaign). In fact, bleak humor is one of the hallmarks of the Songs, as when we are assured in Song 29 that Henry is not -- no, really, he isn't -- an axe murderer:
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
And there is one thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
The Songs also serve to chronicle the passing of several poetic generations, with extended elegies on Yeats and Frost (also Faulkner and Hemingway), and even a somewhat grudging farewell to Wallace Stevens (Dream Song 219: "He lifted up, among the actuaries,/a grandee crow. Ah ha & he crowed good./That funny money-man.") The deaths, often by their own hand, of Berryman's fellow ETPs are a running theme throughout, as in Song 153:
I’m cross with god who has wrecked this generation.
First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore.
In between he feasted on Sylvia Plath.
That was a first rate haul. He left alive
fools I could number like a kitchen knife
but Lowell he did not touch.
(Berryman's advice to Plath in Song 187: "Them lady poets must not marry, pal.")
Somewhere -- I couldn't find the reference when I went searching for it -- Nietszche repeats the story of a Greek tyrant who constructed a brazen bull in which he roasted his victims; the opening at the bull's mouth was so formed that the victims' cries of anguish emerged as sweet music. That, he tells us, is where poetry comes from. For the ETPs' generation, at least, there seems to have been some truth to the theory.