Friday, May 8, 2009

sanity and poetry

How much madness we’ve flushed down the drain!

In the London Review of Books, there is a review of the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Bishop stood for sanity, as much of it as she could stand. She grew up in a house with a mad parent, her mother. Lowell stood for insanity, or sanity shaken to vertigo – and of course suffered from madness himself.

“Some of their exchanges remain fascinating, such as the letter in 1957 in which Bishop responded to a draft poem (which became ‘For Elizabeth Bishop 2: Castine, Maine’) that Lowell had written about her in which he mentioned that her mother had tried to kill her. ‘I don’t remember any direct threats,’ Bishop wrote, ‘except the usual maternal ones. Her danger for me was just implied in the things I overheard the grown-ups say before and after her disappearance. Poor thing, I don’t want to have it any worse than it was.’ The following year, it must have struck Bishop with considerable force to learn that Lowell, who had had a breakdown, was incarcerated in the same mental hospital as her mother had been. ‘My mother stayed there once for a long time,’ she wrote to him. ‘I even have some snapshots of her in very chic clothes of around 1917, taking a walk by a pond there.’”

We have, of course, invited the wires in since 1917 – we calmly speak of hard wiring, as though we were all appliances. A vision that has its roots in the maddest of delusions, truly of Schreber-like proportions. Wires, of course, don’t go mad, they rust, they misfire, they loosen. There are shorts, there are circuits.

It is a funny thing, but for me, it is only together, only in the circuit of their friendship, that I really appreciate Lowell and Bishop. We do like to take our writers one at a time, but often they come in twos – Blok and Bely, for instance; Verlaine and Rimbaud. Perhaps it was the unhappiness of Baudelaire’s life that he really didn’t find a pairing – he was always the albatross. Folie a deux – granted; But sanity is a deux, too. Don’t credit yourself with it if you have it – cause you didn’t make it, baby. You didn’t make it.

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