February 26, 2016

Touched With That Crazy Poetic Fire

Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby in Touched With Fire - directed by Paul Dalio. Credit Roadside Attractions
Ah, those crazy poets. The New York Times review for a new film is headlined "'Touched With Fire,' a Love Story Between Two Bipolar Poets"

This is not a film review. I haven't seen the film. I did read the book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison some years ago because I was interested in seeing the links she found between manic-depression and creativity.

Art and madness have a history. But is the anguish and perhaps volatile intensity of the "artistic temperament" a characteristic of those who take that path, or a sign of a now-identifiable manic-depressive illness?

I have written before about the connections we make between creativity and mental illness, and also the ties to addictions.

The book is concerned with the biological foundations of the illness and examines it through the lives and works of artists including Lord Byron, Vincent Van Gogh, and Virginia Woolf.

The two poets love van Gogh's painting “The Starry Night” which they duplicate full wall-sized in their apartment. They consider van Gogh to be bipolar, and identify with that painting and its whirling euphoria that they also feel sometimes.

The film version (and film adaptations of non-fiction books are very different from those of fiction) also explores bipolar disorder (AKA manic depression) and creativity through the stories of Marco (Luke Kirby), a performance poet, and a quieter poet, Carla (Katie Holmes). They meet in a group-therapy session in a hospital.

The Times reviewer says that:
Together, they adopt a you-and-me-against-the-world attitude and embark on a mind trip fueled by Marco’s science-fiction-worthy interpretation of the mystical connections among things. They build an impenetrable fantasy of themselves as displaced otherworldly beings and parents-to-be of a yet unborn miracle child.
When people are in that manic phase of a bipolar cycle, they are euphoric and filled with promise and potential. This is when they are writing, composing or painting. They are on a natural high. This seems to be the focus of the film - and why not enjoy that high? It makes for a more enjoyable film than one about two poets in their depressive phase acting catatonic and suicidal.

It is tricky to have characters in a film that are poets, because then you need to have some of their poetry out there and deciding if a poet is really "a poet" is a subjective task. (The reviewer, Stephen Holden, feels their poetry is not very good.)

Dalio, the director, has written about his own struggles with bipolar disorder. And author Jamison plays a role in the film as the two poets visit her and she reassures them that staying on their medication won't destroy their creativity.

Several reviewers seem to feel the film is fair, though edging towards the view that the madness is okay because it feeds the creativity. Maybe poets all feel like they are a bit crazy - and perhaps some even enjoy and promote that image - but I think people in general think thay are a bit crazy in this label it and take a drug for it these days.

A review of Jamison's book in The New England Journal of Medicine (1993) notes that her "attention to the family trees of her subjects, showing how melancholia, irritability, insanity, and suicide affect many families yet leave in their wake immense contributions to our cultural heritage." Jamison sees a definite correlation, but "although mental illness is no prerequisite for creativity and at times may confer a definite disadvantage, both the manic and the depressive phases of bipolar illness may also offer something to augment the creative process."

Do we want the cure? She makes the point that although eradication of the genes responsible for the condition would prevent suffering and illness, it might also have a devastating effect on future creativity and genius.

February 21, 2016

The Art of Poetry Free Online Course

Boston University and edX is offering a free, six-week, online poetry course (a MOOC - Massive Open Online Course) taught by Robert Pinsky, Duy Doan, Laura Marris, Calvin Olsen and Tomas Unger.

The course launches March 29, 2016. The class covers a wide range of material, from classics to work by contemporary poets. According to Pinsky, “this course is based on the conviction that the more you know about an art, the more pleasure you will find in it.”

Rather than following particular schools of poetry or trends, the lectures, discussions, and readings of the course focus on elements of the art itself, from poetry’s historical relation to courtship to the techniques of sound in free verse.

From the edX website:

Poetry lives in any reader, not necessarily in performance by the poet or a trained actor. The pleasure of actually saying a poem, or even saying it in your imagination—your mind’s ear—is essential. That is a central idea of “The Art of Poetry,” well demonstrated by the videos at favoritepoem.org: the photographer saying Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick,” the high school student saying Langston Hughes’ “Minstrel Man.” Those readers base what they say about each poem upon their experience of saying it.

The course is demanding, and based on a certain kind of intense reading, requiring prolonged, thorough— in fact, repeated—attention to specific poems.

The focus will be on elements of the art such as poetry’s historical relation to courtship; techniques of sound in free verse; poetry and difficulty; kidding and tribute—with only incidental attention to “schools,” jargons, categories, and coteries.

Learners are encouraged to think truly, carefully and passionately about what the poem says, along with how the poem feels in one’s own, actual or imagined voice. As Robert Pinsky says, in the Preface to Singing School: “this anthology will succeed if it encourages the reader to emulate it by replacing it . . . create your own anthology.” In a comparable way, this course hopes to inspire a lifelong study of poetry.

To registe: https://www.edx.org/course/art-poetry-bux-arpo222x-0

February 19, 2016

Dear Poet: What does your poem mean?

My friend and fellow poet, Adele Kenny, posted one of her writing prompts recently that asks us to think about what one of our poems means. Think of this in the way a student might ask a poet that question.

As a teacher of poetry, I had many students - young and old - ask me what the poet (not present, perhaps long gone) "meant" by a word, line or the entire poem. That should be an easy question to answer if you are the author of the poem, but sometimes it is not easy.

Haven't you heard poets avoid an answer to that question? Perhaps because they don't want to hand you the answer, or because that don't want to trap the poem in one cage of meaning, or because they don't know the meaning for sure either.

Adele quotes Michael T. Young who says that
“When people ask what a poem means, it seems they expect to be led back to some point of origin that is a clear thought, articulated as prose, and which then defines the poem. The problem is that poems emerge out of fog. A poet doesn’t have a thought that he translates into words but more often he has a vague feeling, “a sense of wrong, a homesickness”—as Frost called it—that he struggles to find words for. It’s one of the reasons it nearly always stumps a poet to be asked what his poem means."

I recall reading a new poem of mine aloud for the first time many years ago. The poem is titled "Weekend With Dad." After the reading, a woman came up to me and thanked me for the reading and in particular that poem. She said, "I can really identify with that poem because I am a single parent too." I thanked her, But, I am not a single parent.

I thought about, as Adele's prompt asks us to do, what my poem means. To me, it was about spending the weekend with my one son because I was giving my wife time with our newborn second son. The poem was about trying to protect who we are, knowing that we will both age, grow, and change. But I had to admit to myself that the poem and the title certainly open a door to the woman's different interpretation.

This is one of the reasons writers like to be in writing groups and read their poems and be read and hear what listeners and readers think about their work.

When you send your poem out into the world, like a child, it takes on its own life, and you have very little control over its destiny.

February 12, 2016

Valentines Not Found on Greeting Cards

A Valentine's Day greeting (in case you need some lines for that sweetheart) via poets.org

Valentines and poets have a long history of writing words of love to send to others. Some classical, some modern, some love, some passion, and even some strong friendships. These are not necessarily your greeting card Valentines.

  1. My Heart” by Kim Addonizio
  2. This Much and More” by Djuna Barnes
  3. The Love-Hat Relationship” by Aaron Belz
  4. Verge” by Mark Doty
  5. Invitation to Love” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
  6. The Ecstasy” by Phillip Lopate
  7. What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  8. How to Love” by January Gill O’Neil
  9. Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet 116)” by William Shakespeare
  10. poem I wrote sitting across the table from you” by Kevin Varrone
  11. A Love Song” by William Carlos Williams

February 2, 2016

Prompt: Dark Places

The Angel Gabriel Appearing to Zacharias by William Blake

The past two months, I have lost four people from my life. Two were old enough that people would say they had a good, long life. Two were old but still young enough that everyone felt their,lives had been cut short.

Friends tell me that I am never without something to say. Choose your adjective depending on how that talkative person feels in your world - chatty, loquacious, garrulous, voluble, conversational, communicative. But often when someone I know dies, words fail me, and the closer I feel to that person, the greater the failure of words to come.

As poets or readers of poetry, we often turn to other poets' words for consolation.

A few years ago, Edward Hirsch published a book of poems called Gabriel: A Poem  about his adopted son who died at age 22 in 2011.

This was his “reckless boy” who had a troubled life. Hirsch said  “There’s something really unnatural about losing a child, and there’s something unnatural about having to write an elegy for your child, but I felt that I wanted people to know what he was like.”

I bought the book two years ago and have never been able to read more than a few pages at a time. The opening lines - "The funeral director opened the coffin / And there he was alone / From the waist up” - stopped me on first reading.

The poem consists of more than 700 three-line stanzas. It has a rushing feel without punctuation of momentum sometimes out of control. That is an odd form for an elegy which I generally think of as being as slow as some heavy organ music in a cathedral.

His poem is roughly chronological and begins with the happiness of the adoption and the energy of youth.
With so much energy he was like a wound top,
He could almost fly a kite when there was no wind.
And then comes multiple diagnoses and the various/ Specialists who plagued us with help” and the ineffective drugs.
The population of his feelings
Could not be governed
By the authorities.
And finally, the looking back, the what-ifs and doubts.
Maybe we were too hard on him/ Maybe we were too soft. 
That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves. 
I will not forgive you
Indifferent God
Until you give me back my son.
Hirsch's poem is too long - and probably too difficult - to use for this prompt, but we have no shortage of poems of lamentation and other topics that go into dark places to consider.

February is our coldest month in much of the Northern Hemisphere​ and no doubt the season is also driving this prompt for me.

"Darkness" by Lord Byron (George Gordon) opens with lines that have always seemed to explain that feeling of waking up in a dark place, even if the sun was shining. Whether that darkness comes from a loss or a darkness in ourselves.

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,

Byron’s poem was literally inspired in part by a “year without a summer,” 1816, that was caused by the clouds of ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Many people interpreted it as the end of the world. Byron took this sense of apocalypse to express a pessimism about nature.

Turning the pages in a thick anthology, I also reread TS Eliot’s "East Coker." This meditation on mortality is the third section of his Four Quartets.

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

The Londoners of the poem seem to live in his Waste Land, a place landscaped by war.  They are forced to enter the darkness of the unlit underground stations to escape the nightly air raids.

A more modern poem by Stanley Kunitz that I have always been affected by is "The Portrait" which begins:

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.

For this February prompt, we go to dark places. Those places can be real and quite  literally dark, or imagined and dark in the many figurative ways we use that word. The darkness of night, of death, depression, lamentation and loss is different and the same. We don't want to go to these dark places, but, especially as writers, we do go there. Going there might not be a choice, but sometimes we put ourselves there.

Keep a light nearby and a hand on the wall for support and walk carefully.

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: February 29, 2016

In 2014, Ron Charles interviewed Ed Hirsch for “The Life of a Poet” series and Hirsch talked about Gabriel, though he would not read from it.