THE ART OF DESPAIR
by Allison Seay
I. Out of the Depths
Perhaps it is a weakness to rely only on my own poetic experiences or sensibilities as a way to talk about craft or as a way to teach. In writing this, I thought of all kinds of things I could write about, things I have discovered about form and experiment and figuring out what it means to write from a Real Place. To be self-referential is sometimes not interesting or helpful to another’s plight in art or otherwise, even if we intend it. I can only say how it has been for me. I can only say the truth as best as I know it and hope that you find some seed of truth you might use for your own work, or find some luminosity that might illumine your poems in a new way.
As I was writing this essay, I wanted to avoid the very subject itself. I wrote around and over and beside the deepest thing and committed the very sin I advise against always. In not writing the truth, I manufactured all the things I find wrong with the world at large: insincerity, self-importance, poetic babble, entertainment for entertainment’s sake, all of it mattering little. Even this introduction is a way to stall my saying This Is an Essay About Despair, which it is, but also is not.
But how do I speak truthfully about despair, which you may know already for yourself? Or tell you that I write from the depths of despair, understand only after I have been deep in the ravine and clawed my way out, survived the misery that is more than melancholia but is instead a paralyzing day-in and day-out sickness without seeming not only disgraceful to you but, worse, pitiable?
Despair is never only despair, though when you are despairing you cannot know this. Surviving despair: that is where I have found poetry and the marriage therein is the only real thing I know of which to speak.
“Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord” says Psalm 130. “Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.” This psalm is one of fifteen Songs of Ascent, which scholars believe were sung as worshippers ascended up the road toward Jerusalem. These particular psalms, or songs, are all hopeful.
How significant that The Song of Ascents asks upwards for and then receives from on high; it descends from above, and from the depths toward high do we send a prayer. In a time of need, and in this psalm, we “wait for the lord more than watchmen wait for the morning.” I don’t know what is to be done with the significance of high and lowness, other than to cherish the grandeur. I am not an evangelist. I do not know enough about God except to talk about mystery and mercy.
To be clear and also personal, I have never been of the mind that poetry is therapy though if one finds it therapeutic, then I’d say it speaks further to the importance and magic of same. But I can only speak the truth as it has been mine and in truth, not only do I not find poetry therapeutic, I find it, when I am in the depths, by turns ominous, dangerous, stupid, fruitless, terrifying to even think of, must less attempt to create.
Later, halfway up the ravine of despair, I might, in an attempt to get back to the work that my real and sane self knows matters, look at a draft of a poem and think how trivial, how solipsistic, how boring. And then, somehow, one day, there is a pin-prick of light, some beauty in the darkness. Something will finally make a little sense. I am up. I am back. I am clean, rested, fed. I have returned from the far country; it is the reward for surviving: simply to say, I have come back.
In the depths, I cannot wash my hair much less write a poem, can hardly get up for a drink of water, much less pick up something to read. Things are only barely bearable and it is only afterwards, talking about it at all, that one wonders how one could have gotten oneself into such a state. Of course, in the state itself, one cannot imagine a state otherwise. To remember that just yesterday I went to the grocery store, taught a class, talked on the phone, wrote a thank you note is as impossible as doing anything those well-meaning people advise or suggest: getting some fresh air, joining a gym, finding a group. To them I say you might as well be asking me to cut off my own limbs.
You see how dramatic the whole affair is. Where is the art, you ask? And I ask myself the same. The only answer is in the form itself. If you are suffering and poetry is your balm, then write it. If you are suffering and cannot will yourself to write, accept it. In the meantime, in your days of melancholia, remember that there is mercy. And when you are feeling mercy, remember that it was not always this easy.
That is how I try to live a grateful life. The best thing, by which I mean the hopeful thing, about crisis is that its late Middle English origin reminds us that the word means “turning point.” The crisis is only temporary; things can’t stay as bad as they are. The Greek use the word as “decide” as in, decide to stay, decide to continue, decide to wait, wait for the morning, decide to continue to essay, decide to continue to try. The beauty of things collapsing is that something new comes in its place.
II. Not Choosing Not to Be
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
The poem is famous for teetering on the edge of blasphemy. As an artist, he nearly loses control. As a priest, his conflict with God is more than one of doubt, but of desolation, or even absence. That affirmation, even feeble, “I can” (as in he can wish for the morning to come) echoes the song of ascents in Psalm 130. I could talk at length about Hopkins’ use of the Petrarchan sonnet structure, the direct address to God while also equally directly addressing despair, one and the sameness, the poet’s question about how a merciful God would subject the poet to the depths of despair.
The sonnet, that famed form of obsessive self-debate, is fundamentally an existential one: an argument as much with the self as with God, or the space we believe God should be when we doubt he is present. Even if feasting on despair would be like eating the decaying flesh of dead animals, the poet does eventually and metaphorically feast in a resurgence of faith, of hope, of cheer.
That final moment, after a long year of darkness, is one of recognition and acceptance. I would argue that the very fact that Hopkins does NOT choose NOT to be (in other words, he chooses to be, chooses to continue) is an affirmation of if not God Himself, then of mercy existing and this poem of immediate, urgent despair becomes, surprisingly, one of hope. After all, we delight in those exact rhymes of the second stanza: Clear. Cheer. Year.
Jack Gilbert, a hero of mine, did an interview with Gordon Lish, in which they discuss what Gilbert calls two kinds of poetry. Poems that give delight, and poems that do “something else.” Lish asks him to explain the “something else” and Gilbert says, “I think serious poems should make something happen that’s not correct or entertaining or clever. I want something that matters to my heart, and I don’t mean “Linda left me.” I don’t want that. I’ll write that poem, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being in danger—as we all are—of dying. How can you spend your life on games or intricately accomplished things?
And politics? Politics is fine. There’s a place to care for the injustice of the world, but that’s not what the poem is about. The poem is about the heart. Not the heart as in “I’m in love” or “my girl cheated on me”—I mean the conscious heart, the fact that we are the only things in the entire universe that know true consciousness. We’re the only things—leaving religion out of it—we’re the only things in the world that know spring is coming.”
In the same interview, Gilbert says he likes to write poems of “profound tenderness,” poems that exist not because something is sad, but because it matters. We must dice order from the chaos of the heart.
And this idea, mattering and believing, was the best teacher I ever had. All I knew to try to do was to write a poem that matters. All I know to teach another poet–if I have anything at all—is that you must learn to write something that matters. (My God!) My God.
III. I’ll Come When Thou Art Saddest
I’ll Come When Thou Art Saddest
I’ll come when thou art saddest
Laid alone in the darkened room
When the mad day’s mirth has vanished
And the smile of joy is banished
From evening’s chilly gloom
I’ll come when the heart’s real feeling
Has entire unbiased sway
And my influence o’er thee stealing
Grief deepening joy congealing
Shall bear thy soul away
Listen ’tis just the hour
The awful time for thee
Dost thou not feel upon thy soul
A flood of strange sensations roll
Forerunners of a sterner power
Heralds of me
In this case, the “I” of the poem is an ambiguous speaker—the muse, perhaps, speaking to the poet, or the beloved, or God. Or, more interestingly, all three as some “sterner power”—the muse IS the beloved IS God who comes when you are saddest, and laid alone in the darkened room.
But, the poem is as much about sadness as it is clemency. Sadness and art is a long marriage. I know that I am not the first (see Bronte, see Hopkins) nor will I be the last to attempt to articulate the unsayable, to attempt to describe despair in an artful way. We are all, in a sense, trying to say the same things but in different ways.
Leon Bloy, the French writer, says, “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering, in order that they may have existence.” It might be noted that this is the epigraph to Graham Greene’s beautiful but despairing novel The End of the Affair, and further noted that Bloy lived an agnostic youth and only after meeting a devout Catholic, underwent a dramatic religious conversion.
It feels uncomfortable to even mention my own poems in the same breath as these other artists, and yet, I do believe it is true that poems are born from other poems, books are made of other books, the questions of the human condition always the same, variations on a theme. And, in the case of suffering, or poems about suffering, it feels important to not rank poets since it is to my mind equally fruitless trying to rank suffering. Pain is pain. Art is art. Suffering is suffering. Someone feeling more despairing than you does not make your despair less. All they, I, we, are trying to do is write what matters. Art is proof that hope is alive.
I wrote what turned into a book of poems that I hope do matter and therein is both sadness and joy, despair and mercy. The idea of merging the muse with God with despair is a theme, for lack of a more precise word, that I found meaningful in writing To See the Queen. And I suppose it might be said that Bronte’s ghost haunted me as much as any other specter of the past or of the imagination. Writing poetry does answer some spiritual need even if the answer is that there is no answer and one is left with that “flood of strange sensations” that Bronte describes.
The book is written in three sections. The first, called “Liliana,” is an attempt to explain a figment, her presence. I was for a while very ashamed of having an illness—depression, despair—but have come, partly through writing this essay, to confront the subject matter honestly. There is no way around the deepest thing, the thing that feels true to me, except to say, I was sick, I saw a figment, I was healed, and then I made art. The gift, the mercy, is in the craft itself.
Liliana appears as a figment, representative of love and debilitating sadness, a god-queen that reigns over despair and clemency alike. I tried to maintain a delicate balance and hope this work transcends a personal interiority in order to address larger themes of desire and grief, illness and faith, pain and beauty—that emotional arc which makes a life. The inner, psychic world can be harrowing and wild but then (by some power that seems outside the self) become a sanctuary. I have tried to explain this “narrative” through image and landscape and metaphor, depending most heavily on the blurred presence and voice of the figment of Liliana.
I know some poets who have an arc for a book already mapped, a narrative already assigned, but that is not how it was for me. I hung a clothesline in my house and clothes-pinned the poems along it so that I could see the poems at once and try to decipher a structure. It took a long time and I had to dismiss a lot of poems to finally see the shape emerge. The sections might speak to the myopic and telescopic lenses; I wanted to see Liliana and God and love and sadness from all the angles I felt were available to me. Moving the lens closer or further away was one technique I found that would allow me to see clearly. Even when the ideas were blurred, I wanted the image—and the poems in general—to be as precise as possible—and true to the tension I was addressing.
One of the fascinations I had during the writing of some of the poems was this sense that there was more than one “real self.” She was, in the spirit of Emily Bronte and Hopkins, both the muse and my God. Figuring out how to craft a poem around her was difficult and I thought often of Gilbert again. He said, “you have to write a poem the way you ride a horse—you have to know what to do with it. You have to be in charge of a horse or it will eat all day—you’ll never get back to the barn. But if you tell the horse how to be a horse, if you force it, the horse will probably break a leg. The horse and rider have to be together.”
IV. Domestic Majestic
Because in my teaching we are often surveying poets, reading a few poems by many poets, the concept of Trope is difficult. They don’t have enough material to see patterns or themes or motifs in particular ways and so must rely on the tropes of Literature at large—the crucifix, for example, to understand it as a literary device. But tropes have such potential to be much more nuanced. I suppose it speaks to the idea that the longer we are exposed to a certain thing, the more mysterious it becomes. Repetition, in my own writing, is always a far less conscious formal choice than other choices—such as stanza or even title, where the poet makes deliberate choices about craft.
It was not until I had my clothesline up that I began to see recurring images, or themes. It seemed appropriate to work with the recurrence of certain images so that they worked more like symbols, or at least had that possibility attached. All the crises the book is trying to reconcile are never solved and become harder and harder to distinguish from each other. God is love is a figment is sadness is variations on the self. If, then, God lives inside some version of myself, it makes sense to me that I would see the same figment and experience sadness over and over. It was only because I could see her often that Liliana came to be more fully realized. After all, if she were only a singular episode, I could not have seen her as clearly. She became a presence, not a guest, just as the crises of the heart are less episodic and more chronic; they are the crises that make a life.
But the more nuanced version of this is something I could not have seen until after the fact. The use of household objects, for example—lamps, baths and bathwater, dresses, kitchen knives, the rooms of a house—became a recurring motif I was not even aware I was using. I think of Mrs. Dalloway or Mrs. Bridge, despairing, arranging the flowers, moving room to room in the company of only herself, trying to arrange what can be seen as a way of making sense of the inner life.
Liliana reigned majestically in the rooms of my house. I was lucid. I knew she was not “real.” I knew that she was a figment, but knowing she is a figment does not make her unreal. Instead of being a person like you or me, she was a person like a figment. Still real. It was like living with royal company. The majestic lived in the domestic. Her highness came to my lowness and the domestic became majestic. By turns, blessing and curse—like the imagination, especially when the inner life is haunted. She was the muse, the “vessel,” the divine, the sublime, but also the ugly and the real, the brackishness, the wretch, the enemy.
I discovered that her changing forms throughout the book served to examine more truthfully the complexities of love, grief, God, and also the different versions of my self. Yeats says, “We make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. … The other self, the anti-self or the antithetical self as one may choose to name it, comes to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality.”
Nature’s majesty, too, became a way of accessing some different channel of consciousness. I think again of Hopkins carrion, the choice not to feast. I am drawn often to animals, plants, weather, the ocean, and suppose I find something about the supreme indifference of nature calming, somehow comforting. Marianne Moore’s poem, “A Graveyard” writes it truest to what I mean: “the ocean, under the pulsation of light-houses and noise of bell-buoys, advances as usual, looking as if it were not that ocean in which dropped things are bound to sink—” Weather, especially, is metaphorically complex.
These poems arise from an acute, clinical, life-threatening despair. And yet my doctor, specifically, used to talk about the “weather” of the brain. She would talk (beautifully unaware of the metaphor) about patterns of pressure, storms—their predictability or suddenness, their ability to damage, the precautions against them—, calmness, winds gentle or severe, about highs and lows of moods as though they were tides of the sea. It struck me as a very true description, and it was comforting to think of the map of the mind that way.
Kay Redfield Jamison is a professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and is an authority on manic-depressive illness, specifically. Her book, An Unquiet Mind, works as a medical text and memoir—straightforward and beautiful, scholarly and emotional. There are stunning moments of precision where she will talk about the “almost arterial level of agony”; “One would put an animal to death for far less suffering.”
In another book of hers, Touched with Fire, there is this:
Biographer Leon Edel, in a lecture given before the American Psychiatric Association, carefully shied away from speculations about the genesis of melancholia, or “tristimania,” in writers and artists; he did, however, powerfully argue for melancholia’s crucial role in the arts. ‘Within the harmony and beauty of most transcendent works,” he said, “I see a particular sadness. We might say it is simply the sadness of life, but it is a sadness that somehow becomes a generating motor, a link in the chain of power that makes the artist persist…”
I know that I am not saying anything new. The domestic-majestic marriage is long and complicated.
V. The Triumph
If my entire thesis—if the big advice in this lecture—is to first find what matters and then find a way to write meaningfully about something important in a way that matters, then it makes me feel like a phony if I skirt the issue. How can you trust me or believe anything I am saying if I don’t, in addition to talking the talk, also walk the proverbial walk or, in this particular case, perhaps more appropriately, the plank. I believe that despair is the opposite of the poem, of poetry. The poem’s content may be despairing, even hopeless, but the act of it, the existence of it, is opposite despair. The attempt at being true, even, as Sylvia Plath says, “true to my own weirdnesses” is the price we pay for self-awareness.
Now, if despair is not your deepest thing, you still have a deepest thing. Sometimes I call it the one true thing, meaning, what Linda Gregg calls your amulet, your buried seed, your essence, your resonant source. The thing you are writing about even if you are not writing about it. The subject you cannot escape even if you think you have tricked it and escaped it. I also call it a Real Place and it is the shape of a circle, tiny, from which all the other things you say and write must be borne and through which they all must also pass. Identifying your deepest thing is part of the work of an artist, I think. Maybe it is your political anger, your sexuality, your family. That is part of it.
The other part is making art from it. This is where you use the techniques you learn about when to use or not use form, about meaning-relation in rhyme (see Philip Larkin’s “Talking in Bed” for example), about whether or not to invert the sonnet structure, or use repetition, about confronting the thing by speaking to it, or confronting the thing through silence. This is when figurative language and the power of metaphor can better explain what your thing is. That is how you make sense of your massive feelings, if you can construct art that includes it, even if you don’t include it.
I am leaving out Shelley’s “Julian and Maddalo,” wherein Julian remembers Maddalo said “Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong; / They learn in suffering what they teach in song.” I am leaving out Dover Beach, Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, Flaubert and his Emma Bovary whose “future was a dark corridor and at the far end the door was bolted,” Nietzche, Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s fevered formalism, her cry that “Time does not bring relief / you all have lied / who told me time would ease me of my pain,” Louise Gluck. I am leaving out Simone Weil’s compassion for the suffering and Saint Francis’s cell where he prayed on a stone bed with a wooden pillow. I am leaving out Sylvia Plath “blissfully succumbing” to the “whirling blackness” of “eternal oblivion” and relying on my own experience as a testament to surviving despair.
This does not mean I have triumphed in all ways, but in some that matter deeply. Triumph is a spectrum. I reconciled: Less an exultation and more a sigh. Liliana took her leave of me because I wrote her away, which does not mean despair does not come visit me, but it is not the same; it is not she. I knew when she left she would not come back.
But despair returns in different forms, still crippling, still numb gray brimming nothingness. I learned, when I wrote the last poem of the book, never knowing why her name was Liliana or how it was I came to know that, I learned a nearly unbelievable thing: variations on the word Allison include the name “Elianna,” which, according to the Hebrew Naming Guide means “God has answered.” Coincidence, magic, God—I don’t know. But I am convinced—and reminded—there are forces at work greater than myself. As Henry James says, we do what we can, we work in the dark; the rest is the madness of art.
Allison Seay is the recipient of fellowships from the Ruth Lilly Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her first book of poems, To See the Queen, won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize from Persea Books. Other work has appeared in such journals as Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, The Hollins Critic, Poetry, and Pleiades. She teaches at Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia.
A version of this essay was first given as a lecture at the University of California – Riverside.