We’ve all been riveted by survival stories—those who survive shipwrecks, live on berries in the woods, withstand Artic cold for days on end. In this way we learn that the human capacity to survive extreme circumstances is quite large. Some, perhaps many, have gone on Outward Bound journeys, been solo, recorded the rigors in journals and notepads. Even my son spent one summer in a program called “Odyssey.” He hiked day after day in nearly monsoon rains, climbed the rock face, canoed in white rapids. I actually worked in such a program, took delinquent teens into the wilderness to climb mountains, learn survival skills. Nonetheless, there is another kind of survivor story, one poets are often subject to, one that I have been excruciatingly subject to and will be for the rest of my life and that is the ability to survive in the wilderness of the mind.
Countless poets have lost their lives in the wilderness of the mind, a whole generation—Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Berryman—it’s a long list, an elite list of elite writers. Twice, and twice is two times too many, I have almost joined them by trying to do myself in as I did this past spring by taking an overdose of medications meant to steady my unsteady brain and downing them with wine. Somehow or other, a friend figured out what I was up to, called 911, saved my life. I lost consciousness in the E.R., woke up hours later in Intensive Care.
My life is governed by my mental illness which blasts me, again and again, with bouts of madness or by assaulting me with memories of abuse so virulently violent I can barely withstand them. I’m talking about psychic pain so intense I’m nearly annihilated by it like an angel pinned to the very pinhead she is meant to dance on. I believe that this pain, not anger or revenge, is what drives so many poets into massively creative self-destruction.
Every serious writer of poetry goes on an outward bound journey in the wilderness of the mind because that’s where poems live. In this wilderness which, at best, causes us to drop our jaws in wonder over its magnificence or, at worst, pushes us way beyond what we can withstand. It is amazing what a poet, or at least this poet, will endure in order to achieve that most difficult of things—a poem that will take root, take flight at the same time.
And there are so many failures, so many times when the wilderness is too vast and without paths or stars to navigate by—the path, a line, the star, a word—that we wander aimlessly like lost children in the deep, dark forest. The poem, then, can be seen as a cry from that wilderness and all poems are created with the intent to be outward bound.
A paradox then—by nature poets are inwardly bound, must go in deep, penetrate an inferno of silence, dredge for words in the very gut that nearly guts us, then carry them outward to a world which is all too often indifferent to the miracle work involved with the making of the poem.
There is, undoubtedly, a wild side to poetry—some can be wildly beautiful, others wildly witty, but each one asks us to go willingly into the wilderness of its maker. I say, let’s stake our tents there, build a fire, set off a few sparks that might just ignite a poem or two. Each of us has a survival story that needs to be told, given shape and proper form. Mine may be horrifically graphic with an edge that cuts way too deep, but it is mine, all mine.