Is poetry sane or insane?
O DNA! O lights and washes!
O John Ashbery! mountain air to miasma of swamp,
different! and the same! Unless I say otherwise.
We could write drivel like this all day, but for whom? Cui bono?
Is the poem above a parody of poetry? A parody of insane poetry? Or, are we insane?
No, we are not insane, though our words might be perceived as pointing that way. We are sane in our spirit of parody—you can trust the Scarriet editors.
Insanity can be either sincere or insincere. We do not mean: faking insanity or not. We mean: is one sincere within their insanity?
But perhaps for poetry a more important question is:
Is sincerity a measure of poetic worth? Surely we value sincerity in a friend; what about a poem?
The New Critics (and their heirs like Michael Robbins) would say no, sincerity is not a measure of poetic worth, since sincerity belongs to intention, and intention has no poetic value; in poetry, only the final result counts.
The New Critics were wrong, and for this simple reason:
The final result reveals everything, every cause of the poem, whether it is found in the final result, or not.
So intention and sincerity do matter, and therefore the philosophy of the New Critics has done much damage.
But back to insanity: If insanity—sincere or not—is “sanity at odds with circumstance,” we cannot say the same for insane poetry—for poetry has no outside circumstance with which to be at odds. The poem is its own circumstance.
If poetry is insane, then, as critics we must reject it.
Insanity in life may be noble. In poetry, it merely makes the poetry hard to read, like a sentence unintentionally unclear thanks to bad grammar. Remove the life circumstance, and insanity has no justification: it is not justified in the poem—even if we granted insanity is somehow revelatory; it can be no more revelatory than sanity (or mere accident) all else being equal. Genius is always better than insanity; it would be absurd to state otherwise. Insanity—belonging to poetry—has neither hidden nor overt advantages.
It is philosophy’s job to tell us what is insane or not; Plato may tell us love is insane, but poems on the insanity of love can still be written by sane poets, and if strong feelings belong to both poetry and insanity, we need poets and critics to be all that much saner as they navigate their art.
We understand the whole subject of insanity and poetry is beneath the law of the dyer’s hand: what we work in will infect us. We might even say that poetry itself can be defined as that which dives into insanity while trying to remain sane.
Even as we recognize the inevitable pitfalls of sorting out sane from insane, we think a poetically legitimate “Insane” School of Poetry can be classified in the following manner:
1. The Didactic
2. The Lyric
3. The Realized
The Didactic poem confronts insanity as a kind of recognized problem from the outside; a good example is this sonnet by nobleman and solider, Philip Sidney:
Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy’s scum, and dregs of scattered thought ;
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care ;
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought ;
Desire, desire ! I have too dearly bought,
With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware ;
Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare.
But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought ;
In vain thou madest me to vain things aspire ;
In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire ;
For virtue hath this better lesson taught,—
Within myself to seek my only hire,
Desiring nought but how to kill desire.
“Desire” is Sidney’s villain, but “fancy’s scum,” “dregs of scattered thought” and “causeless care” is a great description of insanity.
“Killing desire” might be more insane than “desire” itself, OK; but one can clearly see the poet’s intention—-to cure what he sees as insanity with sanity.
Other examples of this kind of poem are: perhaps any serious religious poem, “Under Ben Bulben” by Yeats, and “The Channel Firing” by Hardy, the sort of poem where you look at war or some other human folly and pronounce that the world’s gone mad, etc.
The Lyric poem of Insanity can be seen in this rather famous number by Poe:
LO! ’tis a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.
Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly —
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
That motley drama — oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore,
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.
But see, amid the mimic rout
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes! — it writhes! — with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And the angels sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.
Out — out are the lights — out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
And the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.
The Lyric type confronts insanity from ‘inside’ and makes art out of the distorted. “Mariana” by Tennyson is another good example. Examples can be found scattered throughout Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and, of course, the Romantics.
The third type, what we here name the “Realized” type of Poetic Insanity, is a modern invention, with Ginsberg, the rough and autobiographical and Ashbery, the smooth and demure versions.
Our example is by Ben Mazer: part 13 of his long poem, “The King.”
Harpo was also, know this, Paul Revere.
And Frankenstein, and Dracula, and Jane.
Or would you say that I have gone insane?
What would you do, then, to even the score?
And what is more, should the boy King stand clear
and leave the sword undrawn, and face the door?
I could tell you, so many times before!
How every store front is its own museum
and where we two meet in the eyes of heaven.
Traffic stop! And listen to me now!
The King has spoken, and he takes his bow.
O How! How could his little woman
be admitted to the judgement of heaven.
The judgement day is here, the day is now!
The Realized poem of Insanity is fully “inside” the insanity, such that the poem is either tongue-in-cheek, intentionally obscure, or phantasmagoric for its own sake. In this sort of poem the poet’s intention is what is most obscure, and this style arose, naturally, during, and as a result of, the reign of the New Critics, who suppressed intention in poetry, claiming it had no importance at all. (See “The Intentional Fallacy” by Wimsatt and Beardsley (1946))
If we attempt a division between “sane” poets and “insane” poets, the sane ones would be, naturally, Shakespeare, Yeats, Pope, Tennyson, Larkin, Milton, Keats, Krylov, Dante, Millay, Goethe, Heine, Sidney, Homer, Daniel, Swift, Dryden, Barrett, Wordsworth, and Byron.
The “insane” poets would include Catullus, Clare, Beddoes, Smart, Coleridge, Hood, Poe, Shelley, Thomas, Bishop, Plath, Auden, Spicer, Lowell, Sexton, Cummings, Reznikoff, Blake, Williams, Ginsberg, Pound, Heaney, Melville, Hopkins, Herbert, Crane, Bunting, Winters, Dickinson, Spencer, Eliot, Stevens, and Stein.
A neat division like this, while relatively easy to do, can never be perfect.
A sane critic may, for one reason or another, write insane poems. Yvor Winters strove to be a very sane critic, but in poems like “The Slow Pacific Swell” and “By The Road To the Air Base” one can see total insanity. And this is an insight into perhaps why Winters resented Poe so much: it was the “Realized Insane” poet having no patience for the “Lyrically Insane” poet. The issue is also more complex because of our three types of Insane Poetry, and, in addition, the “Realized” type has as an almost infinite amount of motives, layers and colorings.
One might ask why Byron is placed in the Sane group of poets, while a low-key person like Seamus Heaney is placed in the Insane category: the classification is based on the poetry more than the poet; Sane Poetry exhibits Reason, even if it’s masked by Wit; when strong passion is resisted by reason, sanity is often the result; when weak passion tramples the reason, insanity quietly follows. Heaney fell victim to over-use of simile and milk-and-water fastidiousness; Byron talked witty sense in the end.
The Didactic type of Insane Poem often fails from just that: the didactic, or the preachy. The Lyrically Insane, at its most rigorous, manifests the highest sense of art. The Realized Insane soars, or suffers, from flying close to, or into, Insanity’s bright sun.