“We all know poetry isn’t a craft that you can just turn on and off. It has to strike fire somewhere, and truth, maybe unpleasant truth about yourself, may be the thing that does that.”
Robert Lowell, from a letter quoted in Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (2017) by Kay Redfield Jamison
It has taken me a long time to know assurance in the seasons of my writing. For a long time I was burdened by shame. I could not disclose to anyone the true scope and matter of the words that set my soul on fire. I lived with chronic disappointment that I could not meet one or other standard of productivity, fluency, discipline or focus as a writer. Projects would come and go, speaking of Michelangelo, and I would punish myself with drunkenness, depression and dedication to a false calling, my life as a bureaucrat.
The shame lay in the fragility of my mind, and the fear that I would repeat my genetic destiny of manic-depression. Every abandoned draft, every incompletely scanned poem, every half-cocked political essay gave me more concern that madness lay at my feet, and that one day I would be compelled kneel, to scrape, and to pick up in my shaking hands the curse of my fate. I too would live life as a neglected ruin, hidden away from the hard minds of the world, known only to some too-busy mind-doctor who would medicate me into submission.
The company of cold skulls that I kept by night, in whom I vested the frenzy and invention of madness, never spoke with the orderly and rational fellow who made his way with some forced ease through the corridors of power by day. I would pretend to a an insider’s knowledge and a comfort with power, and conceal my chaotic inner life. But the great powerful patrons always suspected something was amiss. They described it as a kind of unworldliness, and so it was. They could see that I always shrunk from negotiating conflicts with people, and preferred the imaginative flight of words.
I believed that I had to make a choice, and I could not set both my lives down together to share a meal. I needed a break to follow another path. But life never gave me a break. In the year my first child was born, I published my first poem, and began a writing course. But this was no time to throw away an identity that paid the mortgage. Still, becoming a parent in my thirties freed me to withdraw from the world of power, to shelter against the tempests that I feared, and live more hours each week for what truly mattered.
But still I kept my writing secret. Through my forties I established more regular habits: each Sunday I would show up to write, even if often the products were anguished rants about money and career, and dissatisfaction with this writing self who struggled to stick at any piece of art for more than a couple of weeks. I also experienced at work a great stretch of productive contribution and esteem, shaping alcohol and drug and mental health policy, which led me to dream that I could yet play a leadership role in the bureaucracy, and lead a life of the mind on issues of deep importance to me. But still I lead this double-helix life, in which my workaday world never spoke with the true ambitions of my imagination. I began a blog – the happy pessimist – in which I wrote under the pseudonym of Antonio Possevino about the world of politics and government; but I kept it secret.
And my madness made me suspect my mind, and shroud its feverish scribbles in shame. I felt like Robert Lowell, that:
“Sometimes, my mind is a rocked and dangerous bell; I climb the spiral stairs to my own music, each step more poignantly oracular, something inhuman always rising in me” Robert Lowell, quoted in Setting the River on Fire
Yet in this decade I also finally accepted medical treatment for my long-standing depression. Regular torments were dampened down, and I found a new freedom and comfortable habit of writing. And I published an e-book of my poems on smashwords, and then later on kindle direct publishing.
This book of poems – After the Pills – explored the difficult realisation that we are not masters of our minds. I wrote in the preface:
“Whichever genre I have selected, my writing has explored the difficult relationship I have with my self. Know thyself is the old adage, and most romantic and post-romantic, modern and post-modern stories of the artist celebrate the depth of self-awareness, the inherent capability, and the assurance of the self who bears the pen into the battles of self-definition. This self of mine who I encounter in the traditions of the lyric, however, seems altogether too slippery, enigmatic and treacherous for such stories.” Jeff Rich, preface to After the Pills
The poems also explored the troubling truth that, for reasons even medicine is not sure of, this little pill or mirtazapine could transform my life and give me assurance of my mind in a way that no reason, no philosophy, no mere mental event could. How could this pill release the craft of writing and the voice of the poet from the destructive fires of madness?
“For me the self is a more inherently limited and weak thing, and I remain spellbound by how different my experience of life is as a result of the daily ingestion of one small pill. The pill works away on the biochemistry of my brain in ways that I cannot comprehend, and yet I sit and observe how it has made a life once riven by months of darkness and doubt into an enjoyable and productive routine.” Jeff Rich, preface to After the Pills
Still, though the routines of my writing became more firmly established, I told absolutely noone outside of my family of my poems.
By my fifties, my mind collapsed under the psychological strain of concealing my true vocation, out of shame and out of a desire to protect a false professional identity. Then my professional career crumbled. I was humiliated, scapegoated and isolated. I made mistakes driven by a desire to enact a fantasy of inclusion amongst the powerful that had comforted me since childhood. This crisis provoked a suicidal depression. I began writing journals in which I self-mythologised this dark night of the soul: The Wilderness Book; The Fearless Walk through the Flames; the Prophet Redeemed; the Pilgrim Returns to the Road; the Return to the Great Forest. I began my most successful course of psychotherapy, which gave me a new course through life, away from the vast shipwreck of my career.
I walked through this destructive fire, and left behind the ruins transformed and redeemed. I had become the Unburnt One, the Father of Dragons, and the fires that surrounded me no longer threatened my songs.
Image credit: Michael Komarck Daenerys The Unburnt
And, out of this fire, came The Burning Archive.
Here I learned the seasons of my mind. Here I found a vehicle and a craft with which to sing about both my underworld and my adventures of the spring. Here I learned to be comfortable in my own unburnt skin. Here I settled into my craft and my form. Here I learned that I could walk with the truly great – my companions in the infinite conversation – and leave behind my cravings for power, status, and recognition.
The truly great
I think continually of those who were truly great
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s true history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
Stephen Spender, “The Truly Great,” cited as the epigraph of Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with fire: manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament (1993)