A few years ago, I spent some time in a psychiatric center. I experienced a nervous breakdown after a promotion at work and a tumultuous merger between our school and another technical college. I sometimes fear that my depression took a small part of me far away, that I have somehow diminished as a result of my illness raging out of control to a point of meltdown. Many people warned me that the mental hospital would forever destroy my life, that somehow admitting to psychiatric problems would condemn me to an eternity of nervous looks and harsh judgement. I believe I have brought back something of use.
I have come to the conclusion that good poetry must rise up from an over-abundance of living. I was never one to share my poems outside of very specific venues and would never consider myself a “good” poet, but lately I am beginning to own my work and share it with confidence. I don’t think that would have been possible without a trip down a personal hell. I do hope to share a bit of wisdom gained from that journey.
Anyone who has taken a creative writing course will remember the phrase “show, don’t tell.” This should be easy enough to understand as creative writing must strive to appeal to the senses and evoke imagery. But for poems, I have a new mantra that has served me just as well. In the hospital, I learned about the sheer emotional power of traumatic experiences and the need to connect with the memories of them. Failing to connect with trauma as it is discussed elicits emotions from the person hearing it. It is important to remember one’s role in therapeutic discussion and take care not to inflict emotional pain on others as we seek healing.
In poetry it is different. A stark and terrifying effect can be achieved as one dissociates from trauma. This hint of sociopathy magnifies the emotional power of verse as the speaker refuses to connect with material. If the speaker doesn’t show emotional inflection, the reader must. This device demands that a reader encounter the imagery and respond. There is no escape. I have observed this effect in detail when I have read my poem “Anencephaly Blues” outloud.
if its life could know blessed relief had his brain been formed
outside the skull.
A mother-mourning its life-wraps a blue/pink striped
blanket around the fragile gray matter—an attempt
to warm the failed vessel for his soul. Six hours of life
cherished and loved, feeling no pain.
When I read this poem, all eyes settle on me. Reading verse always runs the risk of an audience zoning out or diving into their phones. This piece has never failed to draw people in, even if they have no experience with poetry at all. This technique comes from sociopathy, or the kind of shell shock a person disappears into when stress leaves their mind a blasted and blank field of craters. Wordsworth defined poetry as a “spontanous overflow of powerful feelings.” I disagree. It is not enough to feel strong emotions. One must inflict them and draw them out of the reader.
For more poetry check out my self published work on Amazon
Check out a reading of Anencephaly Blues on my youtube channel.