Thursday, December 1, 2011

Robert Lowell and What To Do with My Hypomanic-Depression (Bipolar II)?

I have thus proved that it is absolutely possible to write bad poetry quickly. I really don't know what else I'm doing here. I suppose I should be working on my longer works, doing some research into coroner's reports for Murder-Suicide in Loveland, into the mathematical equations I use in All Things Being Equal (so I can possibly make that jumbled mess cohere and maybe find some inspiration to craft metaphors that don't suck). But I feel drained, depressed, and, honestly, not at all impressed with what I've written so far. Thinking of going back to my novel. But I'd run into the same problems there.

This is the problematic cycle that, in my better moments, I work to overcome: the grand idea exploded into millions of axons and neurons and glial cells, trunk and limbs and fingers, arteries and veins and capillaries, feverishly begun, feverishly overworked, until half constructed and half polished, then abandoned for greener, spore-infested, algae-ridden ponds. The confusion that follows, the dull and heavy head that fails to understand the hypomanic trajectory. The resignation to the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. The stasis and stagnation.

Lowell after lithium
Robert Lowell supposedly found his depression useful for editing, crawling through each line, each word, from a dirt-level realism that can be the gift of depression. He balanced his manic explosions (during which he wrote, if he was not off on some drunken binge in South America or wherever) with diligent and exacting work, pushing through the lower moods to finish the grand mess he had started. That's self-discipline.

As any of my professors from undergrad or my attempts at graduate school could tell you, I do not have Lowell's dedication, nor his work ethic. I tend to work by inspiration alone, writing when I "feel like it"--and I feel like it during the high-energy, low-judgment big-idea phase.

I would like to overcome my lack of self-discipline. I would like to finish the poems I begin. And the novel I started (which I have been "working on" for about 20 years). And the seven papers I never finished for two different graduate programs (we'll have to list, or else it'll be a big messy unreadable block--

  • for the psychiatric nursing program I'm leaving:
    • serotonin in the pathology & treatment of deliberate self-harm
    • case study of a 10-year-old boy with psychotic symptoms
  • for the literature program I flailed out of:
    • the absent name and freedom of identity in Evelina
    • A.R. Ammons' Garbage as an antipastoral
    • the place and meaning of homosexuality in jazz [focusing on elements of hyperheteromasculinity and its relationship to Billy Strayhorn, James Baldwin, and the flamboyance of Sun Ra and others]
    • Emerson and the daemon of sexuality
    • language, science, empathy, and the meaning of humanity in Frankenstein and maybe some other Faustian works).
And the board game I started creating with my daughter 10 or 15 years ago. And the rock opera I started writing 10 years ago. And so many other unfinished projects I forget at the moment.

I suppose when I finish something, that something tends to be above average. A few of my old professors could tell you that. But there is an overwhelming part of me that likes (or needs) to languish in possibility, spinning grander and more inclusive and complex ideas to avoid doing the hard work and coming out with a final product. In this way, I avoid judgment, I suppose. As long as my project is only a potential product, it could be great--as wonderful as the idea in my head. If I finish it, however, there's a chance that it could be crap. At any rate, the idea of the project is always "so brilliant" that no finished project could possibly measure up. This is not unique to me. It is a variation on the theme of perfectionist impossibility breeding endless procrastination.

Lowell, cocky and young
Does this tendency of mine inform my judgment of poetry as unimportant to the world? Sour grapes? Or my conception of poetry as an impossible struggle to express a reality that lies out of reach of both our objective perception and our language? Do I set myself up for failure and then blame internal forces beyond my control for failure when it inevitably comes?

The thing about Robert Lowell--one thing about him--I share with him a similar diagnosis and one medication  (out of five total for me). I don't share, of course, the famous family with a tradition of creating essential American poetry. And he had more money than me, which is why I never got to fly off to a foreign country on any of my drunken binges (the bastard). Do any of those things make a difference? I wish. As it is, if I truly believe that the artist has no responsibility except to create art (my Wildean principle), then I need to lose the excuses and emulate Lowell's self-discipline, working through and using the strengths of depression to move the poems forward, instead of resigning to the perceived impossibility.

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