It might seem like a contradiction in terms to speak of the most vivid poems written out of depression, a state often characterized by detachment, withdrawal, and anhedonia. The attention to sensory specificity and the engagement with the world that writing poetry can require certainly feels at odds with that state. Writing “from” depression (like doing almost anything while depressed) is a challenge of its own, and then there’s the challenge of writing about the experience in a way that doesn’t simply replicate the clichés of angst that so many people already associate with poetry in general.
For me, the poems of Dickinson and Plath endure as models of effectively wedding the depths of an interior low with the specificity or unique turns of phrase that make the experience achingly real to a reader, but there are certainly poems by contemporary writers that do the same. Whereas the cult of personality and mythology of autobiography built up around both Dickinson and Plath can present a challenge when attempting to come to some of their most famous poems for a fresh read, these poems by contemporary poets disarmed me when I stumbled across them. My short list of of recent contemporary poems speaking to and out of depression would begin with Aaron Smith’s “Still Life with Antidepressants,” Erika L. Sánchez’s “Six Months after Contemplating Suicide,” and Joseph Massey’s “Clear.”
I first encountered Aaron Smith’s “Still Life with Antidepressants” in the anthology Still Life with Poem: Contemporary Natures Mortes In Verse, edited by Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby, published last year by Washington College’s Literary House Press. In Smith’s poem, the “still life” of the title seems to describe both the visual arrangement as the speaker arranges spilled pills to spell words (“yes and try and most of happy”), and the interior stillness of a speaker contemplating their own life. The editors end the anthology with Smith’s poem, and I can see why; its final lines feel like a gut punch riff off of both Ranier Maria Rilke’s “You must change your life” and James Wright’s “I have wasted my life.” (I also think of Wright’s less well known poem “Honey,” a prose poem that ends, “My father died a good death. To die a good death means to live one’s life. I don’t say a good life. // I say a life.”) Smith’s poem ends:
I don’t know how to live my life,
but at least today I want to.
While Smith’s poem occurs in the present tense, Sánchez’s speaker’s experience seems to be “recollected in tranquillity,” as Wordsworth described the process of poetry coming into being. The poem’s voice directly addresses the reader or the self: “Admit it– / you wanted the end.” Here, small sensory specifics carry great weight (“So touched by the sadness of hair / in a dirty sink”). Like Sánchez, Massey’s poem begins in the present tense and moves to past tense to recall the speaker’s state. While the previous two poems end (if only momentarily) on the other side of depression (Sánchez’s poem ends as “the ghost” “fell prostrate, / passed through you // like a swift / and generous storm”), Massey’s “Clear” begins in sun after rain, then moves back into the rain:
All I heard was a window.
A long weed beat
unevenly against it.
Here, we are left experiencing the moment of interminable sameness, though the poem’s title and beginning signaled reprieve.
In each poem, there is physical specificity in and of the mental fog. Massey’s “gray walled / the room in,” a gray so pervasive it could transcend even its visual state to become “a sound / I couldn’t hum myself out of.” Sánchez writes of “that strangling / mist, the fibrous // whisper.” Smith’s poem begins (reminiscent of Dickinson’s “slant of light”) as “The afternoon light lights / the room in a smudged / sheen, a foggy-eyed glow.” Yet, each poem finds a way to emerge, if only in the act of writing the poem. Is the only poem that doesn’t promise some hope a poem left unwritten? Is a poem itself an inherently hopeful gesture? I think of Eliot’s “Shantih shantih shantih,” of the ending of Roethke’s “The Lost Son”:
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Even those whose tragic biographies say otherwise so often give us hope in the trajectories (or simply the beauty) of their poetry. Now, of course, I’m trying to think of a favorite poem that refuses to celebrate life in some way. One of the few I can come up with off the top of my head (besides the biting humor of Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” which I’d categorize as a poem more of delicious misanthropy and cynicism than depression) is, perhaps tellingly, in the persona of an animal: John Berryman’s sheep, which ends “Dream Song 28: Snow Line” by declaring:
If I had to do the whole thing over again