The idea that poetry and madness are deeply intertwined has been with us since antiquity. In A Mind Apart: Poems of Melancholy, Madness, and Addiction, Mark S. Bauer has selected more than 200 poems from across seven centuries that reflect a wide range mental states–from despondency and despair to melancholy, mania, and complete submersion into a world of heightened, original perception. Bauer is a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Harvard South Shore Psychiatry Residency Training Program. His poems have appeared in a variety of literary journals in the US, UK, and Australia, and he is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Imperial Days and The Gnarled Man Rises. In the original article below Bauer reflects on the origins of A Mind Apart.
Poetry and madness…creativity and mental illness: For over 3,000 years these inter-relationships have fascinated western civilization. This intersection was woven into my own childhood in Detroit, sometimes in the person the odd-behaving kid in the schoolyard, Eddie, with the narrow eyes and low-slung ears, sometimes in my lovely, loving, and always-cheerful aunt who, nonetheless, held the unshakable conviction that my immigrant German father’s eyes had been wired by the Ford Foundation to spy on Nazis.
This boundary between “illness” and “normalcy” grew into the focus of my own clinical research on collaborative approaches to treating severe mental illnesses, and has surfaced more than occasionally in my poetry. And in an intriguing, if somewhat unexpected, way this interweaving led to A Mind Apart.
Back in 2005 our local chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) asked me to give a poetry reading at the intersection of National Poetry Month and National Mental Health Month. Knowing the rich vein of poetry that touches on melancholy, madness, addiction, and the like—and knowing that reading such poetry, in addition to worth in its own right, is ultimately a de-stigmatizing experience—I readily accepted. Besides, I figured, it’d be easy to pull an anthology off the shelf of one of the university libraries, pick an hour’s worth of reading, run through it the evening before, and show up and read.
Except that such anthologies, to my surprise, did not exist. Luckily, I made this unfortunate discovery with a couple of weeks’ lead time, and was then able to scurry around various community and university libraries and gather together several dozen poems that would serve the purpose well. Not surprisingly, these included poems from the “usual suspects” of recent days like Lowell (“Why has my talkative / teasing tongue stopped talking?”), Plath (“my each mangled nerve-end / Trills its hurt out”), Kenyon (“pressing / the bile of desolation into every pore”) as well as several well known poets from earlier times like Clare (“Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,— / Into the living sea of waking dreams”) and Hopkins (“No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief”).
What was unexpected though—and so very compelling—was the remarkably similar pattern discernable from poets no one would ever identify, primarily, as “ill.” These were poets like Hebert (“My thoughts are all a case of knives, / Wounding my heart”), Coleridge (“A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear”), Hecht (“But despair is another matter. Midafternoon / Washes the worn bank of a dry arroyo”), and many others.
And as the boundary blurred between the “ill” and the “normal” in these poems, my interest deepened. I began to see connections with my clinical research, which has focused on the potential for wellness and recovery in individuals with serious mental illnesses. And so, after giving the reading, I continued to gather the poems, an effort no less central than highly structured clinical trials to the central theme of my academic work. The poems included all ask the question, “What is, in truth, the boundary between the mad and the normal? Who, really, are these supposed Others?”
Eddie and my aunt would tell you it’s not so clear.