Are you a tormented genius? Do you suffer for your art?
Here’s what Maine poet Alice N. Persons has to say about that.
CALL ME BOURGEOIS
by Alice N. Persons
After watching “Pollock”, with Ed Harris
as the tormented genius,
I couldn’t sleep,
thinking about suffering and art.
Should I feel a little shallow
because I’m not a drunk or a slave
to drugs, I pay my bills, like to cook,
and no believer in my genius supports me?
When I have a bad day,
instead of waking up fiercely hung over
and filthy on a Manhattan street,
at the end of this trying day
I do the dull, comforting routines —
let the dogs out, fill the cat food bowl,
floss, check email, and usually (not always)
behave like a grownup
who happens to be a poet.
I don’t like to wear black all the time.
Bad poets performing their work embarrass me.
I’m all for people expressing themselves,
but I also want them to shower,
and they had better not turn over any
Thanksgiving dinner tables in my vicinity.
Pain makes art
but so do pleasure and normalcy.
Sometimes the quietest person in the band
produces the purest and most lovely sound.
Call me amused, and you can certainly call me bourgeois. I’m with Alice on this one. 🙂
I admit when I was younger, the starving, suffering artist trope appealed to me. After I read the Beat Poets, I wanted to go On the Road with Jack Kerouac. The thought of hanging out in dark cafés with beatniks wearing black berets snapping their fingers sounded real cool, daddy-o.
The only thing that mattered was the art, man. Living, breathing, and making it. Who needed food when you could live off creative vapors?
We grow up hearing about artistic geniuses whose lives were full of high drama. They’re often depressed, anxious, schizophrenic, suicidal, or delusional, many of them addicted to alcohol or other drugs. And we wonder — if their lives had been more “normal,” ho-hum, pedestrian — would they have been able to create the works they did?
Abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, for one, was an alcoholic who was diagnosed as clinically neurotic (speculation he may have been bipolar). Prone to drinking binges and drunken stupors, he was largely reclusive and had a volatile personality. His wife Lee Krasner (also an artist) had a huge influence on his work and career. Pollock benefited from Krasner’s extensive knowledge of and training in modern art, and she also introduced him to many critics, collectors, and other artists. Most important, she believed in him, and he implicitly trusted her judgment and opinions.
Pollock’s paintings have been described as explosions of raw energy. Using his drip method, he used the force of his entire body, wholly immersing himself in his “action paintings,” pure expressions of a liberated psyche. If he had had a calm rather than mercurial personality, would his work have looked entirely different? Maybe, maybe not.
And what about famous writers and poets? The ones who committed suicide quickly come to mind: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf. Other tormented souls whose lives were a roller coaster of drug/alcohol abuse include Edgar Allan Poe, Tennessee Williams, Theodore Roethke, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas. Tumultuous lives, anguish on the page.
We cannot forget artists Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keefe, Francisco Goya, or composer Ludwig Van Beethoven. Geniuses all, perhaps too sensitive for a cruel world. For Munch, his madness was part and parcel of his creative work. He documented his struggles in extensive diaries that describe suicidal thoughts, phobias, hallucinations and overwhelming mental and physical pain. He described the mental breakdown that resulted in his masterpiece, “The Scream”:
I was walking along the road with two of my friends. Then the sun set. The sky suddenly turned into blood, and I felt something akin to a touch of melancholy. I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue black fjord and city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.
Is there a correlation between mental illness and creative ability? This has been debated and discussed for centuries. Aristotle once said, “no great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” Maybe art is about releasing inner demons or a form of therapeutic relief.
In 2001, psychologist James C. Kaufman coined the term, “Sylvia Plath Effect,” to refer to the phenomenon that poets are more susceptible to mental illness than other creative writers. Female poets, in particular, are twice as likely to suffer from depression, and many studies have shown they may also experience mood disorders, panic attacks, and eating disorders. Neurologists have found evidence that higher creative ability and certain personality traits make a person more vulnerable to psychiatric illnesses.
Pair sensitivity with the intense introspection that characterizes many writers, and it’s not surprising to find them struggling to find a viable balance between real and imagined worlds, along with a compulsion to bring hidden depths of emotion to the surface, to mine painful memories as a means of healing, or to tap into the collective unconscious to feel whole and connected. Writers live in their heads, and it’s not always pretty.
But back to Alice. Though I find suffering artist stories fascinating, I don’t romanticize them anymore. Nothing romantic about living in poverty, being persecuted or socially isolated/ostracized, or enduring self-inflicted wounds on a daily basis. No, I don’t plan to cut off an ear anytime soon. I’ll take my comfy home with central heating and AC anytime over a cold water flat. Bourgeois, bourgeois.
Mr. Pollock and I would not have gotten along. He really did upend that Thanksgiving table.
Indeed, there have been many brilliant creatives who have thrived in “pleasure and normalcy.” This is not to say their lives have generally been smooth sailing. There will always be the loneliness/isolation of working alone, the lingering self doubt, and circumstances beyond one’s control (market conditions, luck, timing).
Above all, writing is hard work. Period.
But there is no better feeling than having written, or the joy that comes from knowing your words have meant something to a perfect stranger. A triumph, too, of self discipline. Each work an exploration, a unique journey, a chance to exceed expectations.
As I’ve often said, one doesn’t choose to be a writer. Writing chooses you. As with other art forms, you are simply compelled to do it. Writing is my way of making sense of the world. It’s a privilege to have words at my disposal to put ideas, impressions, thoughts down in beautiful, rhythmic order. I guess I’m that quiet person in the band trying hard to make a lovely sound.
Maybe there’s a certain madness in that. Better call me Ishmael. 🙂
The multi-talented Matt Forrest Esenwine is hosting the Roundup at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme, with a special poem by Lee Bennett Hopkins from the new anthology, Night Wishes. Join the fun, then check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Have a good weekend and stay safe, well, strong, and wear your mask! 🙂
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