Friday, October 26, 2007

Poetically Speaking: On the Metaphor of Schizophrenia and Poetry

Recently, on a listserv to which I belong, someone sent a message that compared poetry to schizophrenia. It's not a new metaphor, I know, but it's one that I've encountered frequently, particularly recently, and it's one that I'm not comfortable with. Another member of the list explained to me that it's a very apt metaphor for poets, because it helps to explain the concept of the muse, similarly to Spicer and others. What I encounter with some people who use terms like schizophrenia in this way is that they don't really know what the term means and don't necessarily take the entire meaning of the term into consideration when making a comparison. I wanted to share my thoughts on schizophrenia as a metaphor for poetry here.

The issue I have with throwing these terms around is that I understand the pain (and shame) that people experience in having schizophrenia, and my concern relates to not wanting to show disrespect for people who are in pain like that, particularly when there are many people who don't fully understand the meaning of the term that they're using (and, decidedly, the DSM changes so frequently that it's difficult to keep up with what terms mean, etc.). I understand Spicer's aliens using the furniture in his room in order to speak through him, and I appreciate that metaphor (and that it doesn't refer to schizophrenia). And, I can appreciate a metaphor that describes that urge that I have to write that sometimes doesn't feel like myself, that sometimes feels outside myself ("alien"), that pulls me to my notebook or keyboard and pours out of me.

However, I, personally, am uncomfortable using a term that is so socially loaded and misunderstood so as to cause people who suffer from "real" auditory and visual hallucinations (and paranoia) to feel isolated and rejected. (And, I write this as I sit at the hospital attempting to get help for a patient who has been trying for years to live with her paranoia but who is resigning herself to accept outside help, because she just can't take it anymore-- even under these circumstances, she's not really ready to accept what's happening with her). I think about the people I come into contact with regularly when I hear the terms poetry and schizophrenia used nearly synonymously. When in a social setting, I'm sure that not too many poets would introduce themselves as "schizophrenic" (a term I am also loathe to use, as there's so much more to a person than a mental health diagnosis) because of the social reprecussions that would create. Sit back and imagine how someone you've recently met might react if you say, "Oh, and I'm schizophrenic. I have some books with me, if you want to look." People already have a difficult time reacting appropriately when told we're poets....

I am a poet. And, in a lot of ways, being a poet is complicated. What compels me to write poetry that doesn't happen with my brother or other family members? I don't know. I know that I don't hear voices that "command" it of me (and, I've never encountered someone with voices that would command something like writing poetry-- from the way I understand it, the voices ask for something else).

On some levels, I can understand the metaphor, but on many, I simply can't accept it. Maybe I'm too close to people in crisis, and I just want to pull them in under my blanket and protect them. To me, it's a convenient metaphor in a lot of ways, but even in reflecting on Spicer's aliens, I see it as different from what he described. My muse is in me, and in many ways, is a part of me. My muse doesn't wish me harm, doesn't tell me I'd be better off dead and give me ways to kill myself. My muse doesn't tell me that everyone is looking at me and laughing. Nor does my muse tell me that everyone hates me because I had my tarot cards read once eight years ago. My muse seeks to help me identify with others, not to isolate me from others. My muse helps me to share in the human experience and give to that experience. This is not to say that all auditory hallucinations are exactly like this, or that there aren't individuals who enjoy the company they have. Some are much kinder-- "helpful" seeming. And, this is not to say that there do not exist and have not existed people with schizophrenia who are not poets (or painters, or sculptors, or other kinds of artists), because we all know this isn't true.

I'm thankful for my interactions with people with schizophrenia, because my poetry has been affected by those interactions (I've been affected in other ways, too, but this is about poetry). I've learned a lot about language and how to fit words and ideas together in ways that were never available to me before. I've learned that there are "other" ways of presenting complex ideas on the page, just from conversations with the people I've encountered. I've learned to think differently in some ways, because I've been granted new perspectives on the mind and the way it produces thought. I'm thankful for that, and I try to be respectful of that.

Thanks for reading!

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