We like our artists a little crazy, or, if not crazy, at least conflicted about circumstances that restrain less noble souls. To foil readers’ expectations and deny them complacency, a poet particularly needs to bleed over the borders of ordinary experience. Verlaine and Rimbaud drank to tell us about it. Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton sought a psychological authority no one else could touch. Dylan Thomas was more shaman than stylist, unselfishly devoted to visions impossible without his bottle.
A true poet, the argument goes, can’t be checked. The true poet is, by necessity, an iconoclast. To see everything, he or she must know no boundaries.
However, all this talk of madness makes me a little nervous. Do I have to be self-destructive to be a writer? Is it bad that I don’t want to be crazy? If I have to break rules, which ones can I break without hurting my family, losing people I care for, or ruining my health? Can anyone suggest a good, non-addictive, and harmless drug? Though I’d prefer something that doesn’t last long or permanently foul up my brain, anything that gets me thinking even more strangely than usual might do.
While I accept the artist’s special status—many great artists do seem half-craftsperson, half-witchdoctor—this marriage of art and lunacy seems confusing. I can’t tell which is prerequisite to which. It may take a sort of insanity to reach artistic revelations, but I sometimes wonder if the search for revelatory experience drives artists mad. And the hunger for discovery sometimes becomes its own end, excluding any concern for others. What’s more, coupling excess and art sometimes seems to encourage cruelty and condescension. If, as Blake said, “The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” some artists come to regard excess as the only path. If you are not on that path, they assume, you’re surely lost.
But maybe I’m being defensive. Clearly, I’m not crazy enough.
As an undergraduate, I took a summer poetry course with an Irish poet. His work echoed lusty pub songs and bumped along as violently as late night romps. Inventive and absolutely sincere, his poems’ passion sweat from the page. I envied their expertise, and I envied the experience that made them. I wanted to live so vividly.
This Irish poet, however, was a boor. Impatient, intolerant, unable to suffer fools like me, he was surly, nearly always drunk or hung-over, and quick with devastating remarks. I was too nice to make a good poet, or, if a good poet was inside me anywhere, I was damning him by damming my hidden nastiness. The Irish poet took it upon himself to evoke my anger, open my apertures, and draw my demons out—and he was disappointed when all I could muster was some peevishness at the way he treated me.
I’m always being told I’m too restrained, too fastidious, too mannered, and must be hiding something.
Is the artist’s crucial obligation to go beyond every boundary or be sincerely him or herself? When does trying to be unconventional become reverse conformity, control by what you despise? What is the proper commitment—to what you have not yet experienced or to the way you see the world now?
I often feel at odds with circumstances and a little bit mad. I sometimes feel estranged from others and, yes absolutely, I think of dark possibilities, including the possibility I have everything—every atom of it—wrong. For some poets and artists, acting out by acting on those feelings is a profession of faith, the true expression of conviction.
That order of belief seems beyond me.