Notes on Parenthood, Wistfulness and Melancholy
A damn fine word . . . a first rate word, in fact . . . evocative . . . almost onomatopoeic . . . a word to conjure with . . . a word to get lost in . . . a word you can't really grasp until you've got a few rings under your bark . . . or until you've dropped off your daughter for her first day of high school
and realized with a pang as cold as Death's toes that you'll never again get to sit down with her to an afternoon tea of muddy water and construction paper scones, nor need to remind her that there are just some things that don't belong in one's nose, nor discuss those questions that are both practical and metaphysical that only children bother with, nor feel the bird-like bones of her hand in yours while crossing a street.
Wistful describes an almost pleasant sadness. It imparts clarity, born perhaps of resignation and its attendant calm. It is because of this quietly pensive quality that wistfulness is a mental state from which a lot of our best poetry comes.
Then there is Wistful's ugly stepbrother, Melancholia.
The melancholic poet is as stale a cliché as there is in our culture, but like all things trite and tiresome, it has some basis in reality. For reasons no one has satisfactorily explained, writers are more prone to depression than their non-writing peers. Whether it is that the work of writing itself, with its necessary inwardness and constant uncertainty, triggers depression, or that the type of people who tend to become writers are just wired for depression is similarly unknown.
Because depression makes normal human contact painful if not impossible, writing sometimes becomes the sufferer's only viable means of expression. The page may stare blankly back at you, but it never says it's all in your head; it never says just snap out of it and it never doubts what you're experiencing is real. In most cases, the writing is not so much a cry for help, as it is a sort of last desperate assertion of selfhood. Our words, to a great extent, define us as individuals and the act of writing in a very real way is an act of self-creation. For the depressive, the gathering of words on a page is an attempt to rebuild a disintegrating self. The sentences are spells against an unnameable darkness. They are kindling against a looming ice age.
There is something to be said for occasionally (and only occasionally) sitting down to commune with the beast: to pull the curtains, yank the phone out at the root, sit under a bare lightbulb gone dim with grime, and just wallow in a stack of poetry that taps into the existential loneliness that most of us claw and scratch through our lives trying to escape, with television, drink, the smallest of small talk, sleep, sex, connoisseurship, collecting, cults, compulsive exercise, and any other psychological contraptions we can devise to keep us from hearing it's howling silence.
The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson /
Different Hours: Poems / Stephen Dunn
Everything Else in the World / Stephen Dunn
Other books by Stephen Dunn: The Insistance of Beauty, Local Visitations and Loosestrife
Ararat / Louise Glück
Descending Figure / Louise Glück
The Wild Iris / Louise Glück
Collected Poems / Donald Justice
Night Light / Donald Justice
Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960 / Denise Levetov
Evening Train / Denise Levertov
Poems 1972-1982 / Denise Levertov
Selected Poems / Denise Levertov
Behind My Eyes / Li-Young Lee
Book of My Nights: Poems / Li-Young Lee
The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems / Pablo Neruda, edited by Mark Eisner
Collected Poems, 1937-1971 / John Berryman
The Dreamsongs / John Berryman
Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan /
Other Collections by Celan: Breathturn, City of Strangers, Glottal Stop: 101 Poems, and Threadsuns
The Collected Longer Poems / Hayden Carruth
The Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991 / Hayden Carruth
The Olney Hymns [computer file] / William Cowper
Selected Poems / William Cowper
The Complete Poems / Randall Jarrell
Collected Poems / Robert Lowell
The Complete Poems / Dorothy Parker
Ariel: The Restored Edition / Sylvia Plath; foreword by Frieda Hughes
The Collected Poems / Sylvia Plath
The Complete Poetry / Edgar Allan Poe
The Collected Poems / Theodore Roethke
Selected Poems / Theodore Roethke
Selected Poems, 1957-1987 / W. D. Snodgrass
Other Snodgrass collections: Heart's Needle, and The Fürher Bunker
I Just Hope It's Lethal: Poems of Sadness, Madness & Joy / edited by Liz Rosenberg & Deena November
Madness and Modernism: Insanity in Light of Modern Art, Literature & Thought / Louis A. Sass
The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets / Adam Kirsch
Life is hard. you're lucky to get out of it alive. --A probably misremembered line from W. C. Fields
As always, comments, corrections, snide asides, catty remarks, grammarian rebukes, after-dinner mints, and suggestions for future posts are gladly accepted.