ruminating on “call me bourgeois” by alice n. persons


Are you a tormented genius? Do you suffer for your art?

Here’s what Maine poet Alice N. Persons has to say about that.


Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock (2000)


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.
Cigarettes stink.
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.

~ from Never Say Never (Moon Pie Press, 2004)


Ed Harris in “Pollock” (2000)



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?


American author Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969) gestures expansively as he reads poetry at the Artist’s Studio, NYC, 1959 (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)


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.


Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner


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.


Stream of consciousness pioneer Virginia Woolf drowned herself in 1941 at the age of 59.


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.


Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night in 1889 during his stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.


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”:


“Der Schrei der Natur” (The Scream of Nature), by Edvard Munch (1893)


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.


Sylvia Plath suffered from clinical depression for most of her adult life, and was only 30 when she killed herself in 1963.


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.


“Starving Artist Getting Warm by a Painting of Fire” by Teun Hocks, 1990.


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! 🙂


Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

35 thoughts on “ruminating on “call me bourgeois” by alice n. persons

  1. Good morning, Jama. I think you hit the nail on the head. We are all wounded in some way, and for many if us those wounds appear in a creative expression, be it loud or soft! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very thought-provoking post, Jama – I’d not seen the Pollock movie, but now I need to! I can completely identify with starving artists, as I’ve always been drawn to vocations (like radio, writing, and art) that fulfill my soul but don’t necessarily my wallet. Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I hear you. I keep wondering why this has been the case for centuries — shouldn’t artists, writers, or other creatives be more valued in society and compensated for their labors?


  3. I don’t think Pollock and I would have gotten on well either, Jama! Hello? You don’t ‘upend’ a Thanksgiving table, you ‘end up’ at one, eating way too much!
    I love these lines from Persons’ poem:
    “I’m all for people expressing themselves,
    but I also want them to shower” Hee-hee!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this post, Jama. The suffering artist trope goes back centuries! Like you and Alice, I’m over it. William Carlos Williams, who was a family physician living in the NJ suburbs, is my poetic hero. I love Alice’s lines:

    Bad poets performing their work embarrass me.
    I’m all for people expressing themselves,
    but I also want them to shower.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. It is an intriguing thought about that ages-old trope of aching artists searching for answers, However, my experience with gifted children recognized some of the brilliance and also heartache even so young who were striving for something they could not define. Some have gone on to exciting careers in the arts & sadly, some I am no longer in touch with. It’s a post that will linger with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s fascinating to think about — suffering for your art. I think so much depends on the emotional landscape of the artist in question. Some are never satisfied with their work and suffer from self inflicted wounds, while others push themselves to do better and turn out okay.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Really good post. I agree with you that we shouldn’t romanticize all these things: poverty, mental illness, suffering of all kinds. I have heard, anecdotally, about people who couldn’t create when they were on their meds (I know one personally who had this experience). But mental illness is miserable for the person suffering and everyone around. I wish Virginia Woolf had lived a lot longer. I’ve just started reading her work and I would like there to be more of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also wish there was more support overall for mental illness — and less stigma. Think of how many people who are ill don’t seek treatment, or can’t get the help they need. Such a travesty to suffer lifelong like that.


  7. Such an engaging post Jama. I do like to hang out in cafes to write and drink coffee- or at least I did until Covid said no. Apart from that I do not present as someone living on the edge of life. My oddity would appear to be harbouring a passion for poetry and sport simultaneously. For many onlookers that is unsettling. There are often strong links between creativity and asymptomatic social behaviours. Mental health issues were significant across the artistic and literate luminaries you highlighted. We tend to lose them too soon unfortunately. Thank you again for provoking thought. The poem is excellent. I shall leave you now and go and sweep the floor and further ponder its words.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the nice comment, Alan. I used to like writing in cafes awhile ago too. I don’t think it odd for someone to be both poet and athlete. The two don’t seem to be mutually exclusive to me. Both require training, concentration, persistence, practice and commitment.

      Sweeping floors and other mundane tasks can be good “distractions” that allow the mind to work.


  8. Jama, I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this post. The poetry, art, quotes the thoughts on suffering v. hum drum. That line, “bad poets performing” made me laugh out loud! Thank you for a wonderful start to my Saturday. This post put me in the most perfect of moods and frame of mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hey “Ishmael” I’m so glad you’re trying “to make a lovely sound,” and I hope you keep on doing it! I’ll side with you and Alice–and enjoy and take her poem too. Lee Krasner was a wonderfully talented artist, and should have been recognized much sooner, along with many other women artists. Everything doesn’t have to be dark to create great art, there’s already darkness out there to pull from. And the arts sure do choose us. Stirring post Jama, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that Lee and many other female artists didn’t receive the recognition they deserved, and yes, great art can indeed come from a place of joy and light.


  10. What an interesting post, Jama. While troubled minds make great end pieces there is something intriguing about writing that lures me to find the essence of what is inside me. Your thought, “Writing is my way of making sense of the world,” is often what I think. Thanks for the introduction to the poet and her poem.

    Liked by 1 person

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