“Will I ever write properly, with passion & exactness, of the damned strange demeanours of my flagrant heart?” ~ John Berryman, from “Monkhood”
Saturday, late afternoon. Sunny, humid, mid 80’s.
It’s been a rough week. I started a regular post last Saturday and wiped it. Started another one on Sunday. Wiped that too.
Did manage to go to some great poetry readings, though. This year, I finally convinced Brett to attend a few of the events at ODU’s annual Literary Festival. In its 35th year, it’s one of the longest-running literary festivals in the country. He was only disappointed by one presenter and loved the other three. I went to two, wanted to make it to one on Thursday, but just couldn’t. As a result, though, I have discovered two new poets, both of whom I will be writing more about at another time.
I’ve been mulling over a myriad of things, beginning to think that I’ve reached conclusions, solutions, only to end up more confused and scattered. These are the things occupying my thoughts lately:
Will Alexis ever learn how to accept her role as a mother?
Will Brett go to New Zealand, and if so, will her ever come back? Will such a journey help him to find that which he seeks?
Will we all make it through the next few months?
Will I leave the house in the morning only to return to it hours later to find Shakes dead?
Will Tillie continue to have unexplained seizures?
Will I ever come out of this funk?
Will I ever have just one day in which I am not torn up by guilt, fear, and regret?
This, and so much more . . . A person could go well and truly mad from too much pondering.
“Sometimes melancholy leaves me breathless.” ~ Mary Oliver, from “Sometimes”
My melancholy always deepens in the fall, which is conflicting at best as autumn is my favorite season, but it is also the season of my deep regret and my keenest losses. So many decisions were made in autumn that changed my life forever. You know Frost’s two roads? Well, is it possible to have stood at the fork in the road a hundred times? A thousand? Sometimes, it seems so.
So what characterizes my melancholy? I mean, if I had to describe it, which I have done in the past, just how would I do that? I wonder . . .
Like Søren Kierkegaard, my melancholy is almost like a living part of me: “I have one more intimate confidant-my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, she waves to me, calls me to one side, even though physically I stay put. My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known, what wonder, then, that I love her in return.”
My melancholy is like . . .
The deepest blues in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”
A slow Alison Krauss song, full of longing
The smell that fills your nostrils when you turn over a pile of wet leaves—earthy and rich
The dregs of a cup of Darjeeling
The way it feels when the credits roll at the end of The English Patient
The haunting sound of the fiddle in the soundtrack to Legends of the Fall
The way sand feels beneath your feet as it is borne back to the sea by the tide
The mother in the Dorothea Lange photograph
The echo of a foghorn across the bay in the still of the night
The sliver of the waning moon in the nigh sky
“and in the end when the shadow from the ground enters the body and remains, in the end, you might say, This is myself still unknown, still a mystery.” ~ Linda Hogan, from “Inside”
You might say that none of those things is particularly sad, and you would be right. My melancholy isn’t sadness. It isn’t depression. It isn’t the bleak dullness of a February morning without snow. Rather, it is an ache, a longing, a yearning, but for what exactly, I still cannot say.
The things on my list individually can be beautiful and haunting. Together, they can be overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why I listed them as opposed to piling them all together in a paragraph. Separated by that forced line break, there can be a pause, a moment in which to collect oneself before venturing on.
Am I blathering? Perhaps. Sorry.
At least I’m supposedly in good company. Famous people known for their melancholy? Van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, John Keats, Ernest Hemingway, Søren Kierkegaard. Notice that list is all male? I think that when famous women were (are?) melancholic, they were categorized as depressed, which is actually not the same thing. Depression can be completely debilitating; whereas melancholy is more reflective. The melancholic can be depressed, but the depressed individual is not necessarily melancholic.
I perused a few interwebs articles on melancholy (academic as opposed to cultural), and most assign a few clear characteristics to the melancholic. On the plus side, they are talented, creative, idealistic, and loyal. They like lists (no kidding) and charts, and they pay attention to detail. On the other side, though, they can be perfectionists; they procrastinate, often spending more time planning than doing. They tend to remember the negatives and have a low self-image, and they have a deep need for approval.
Really? No, really? Hmm . . .
“I have in me like a haze Which holds and which is nothing A nostalgia for nothing at all, The desire for something vague.” ~ Fernando Pessoa, from “[I have in me like a haze]” (trans. Richard Zenith)
Did you know that melancholy literally means black bile (Greek, melas (black) + khole (bile) = melancholia)? This definition comes from the ancient characterizations of personalities according to the four humours (The four humors of Hippocratic medicine are black bile (Gk. melan chole), yellow bile (Gk. chole), phlegm (Gk. phlegma), and blood (Gk. haima), and each corresponds to one of the traditional four temperaments. A humor is also referred to as a cambium(from Wikipedia and lots of other sources)). Just a bit of history.
Of course, we don’t go around any more telling people they have too much black bile or too much blood in their constitution, but maybe we should. I mean, the corresponding personality traits (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic) are pretty much spot on. The sanguine individual is an impulsive dreamer, the choleric an aggressive leader, the phlegmatic quiet and relaxed, and the melancholic introverted and creative.
All I know is that my black bile makes me not people-oriented and less outgoing. It also makes me withdrawn and vengeful. And I’m still fairly certain that I would have been persecuted as a witch.
“I am light honed To a still point in the incandescent Onrush, a fine ash in the beast’s sudden Dessication when the sun explodes.” ~ Wole Soyinka, from “Around Us, Dawning”
So, this is where I am now: My melancholy defines me in so many ways:
I have so many things that I want to do, but I never seem to do them, just plan them.
I spend an inordinate number of hours contemplating things, the whys and wherefores.
Essentially, I don’t like people. I love humanity and its wonderful diversity, but most people irritate me.
But those I like, I like with a fervor. Those I love, I love with all of my being.
One of the articles said that melancholics can be bad parents because they have such high expectations, and I do, have high expectations, that is. But not for my children to have fame or fortune, rather, that they have happiness and contentment, two things that have eluded me most of my years
I don’t like to be wrong, and it took me years, nay, decades, to learn how to admit when I was wrong, and I am ashamed to say that it took me far too long to learn how to apologize and truly mean it.
Because I live so much inside myself, I am not self-deluded, but I am self-critical and self-deprecating.
I live in a state of guilt. I’m not sure if this is necessarily my melancholic humor, or just my life.
As one particular site pointed out, “One feature that makes melancholy an aesthetic emotion—like that of sublimity—is its dual nature. There are negative and positive aspects in it which alternate, creating contrasts and rhythms of pleasure.” I suppose this duality is what compels me to try to define that which truly cannot be defined.
However, the site that I liked the best had a nice list of positives and negatives about the four kinds of people, and one thing that it listed really kind of made me take notice: the melancholic can be “moved to tears with compassion.” I never knew that was a trait of melancholy. I always thought that because I cried at commercials, wept at others’ misfortune, ached at injustice, that it was just my soft heart betraying me once again.
Oh, and one more: The melancholic seeks the ideal mate. Fortunately for me, I believe that I have found him.
More later. Peace.
In the mood for the moon, the big, beautiful moon.
Music by Grizzly Bear, “Deep Blue Sea” (From Dark Was the Night CD*)
*Dark Was the Night is the twentieth compilation release benefiting the Red Hot Organization, an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS. Featuring exclusive recordings by a number of independent artists and production by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, the compilation was released on 16 February 2009 (UK) and 17 February (US) as a double CD, three vinyl LPs, or as a digital download. John Carlin, the founder of the Red Hot Organization, was the executive producer for the album. The title is derived from the Blind Willie Johnson song “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, which is covered on this collection by the Kronos Quartet (from Wikipedia entry on CD).
I haven’t posted anything from The Paris Review’s Art of Poetry series in a while, so here is something from an interview with John Berryman:
“So if I were talking to a young writer, I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.” ~ John Berryman
Can one generalize on that? So many of the poets of your generation have encountered at least personal tragedy—flirting with suicide, and so on.
I don’t know. The record is very bad. Vachel Lindsay killed himself. Hart Crane killed himself, more important. Sara Teasdale—quite a good poet at the end, killed herself. Then Miss Plath recently. Randall—it’s not admitted, but apparently he did kill himself—and Roethke and Delmore might just as well have died of alcoholism. They died of heart attacks, but that’s one of the main ways to die from alcoholism. And Dylan died in an alcoholic coma. Well, the actual cause of death was bronchitis. But he went into shock in the Chelsea, where I was staying also, and they got him to the hospital in an ambulance, where he was wrongly treated. They gave him morphine, which is contraindicated in cases of alcoholic shock. He wouldn’t have lived, anyway, but they killed him. He lay in a coma for five days.
You were there, weren’t you?
I was in the corridor, ten feet away.
What was it like to take high tea with William Butler Yeats?
All I can say is that my mouth was dry and my heart was in my mouth. Thomas had very nearly succeeded in getting me drunk earlier in the day. He was full of scorn for Yeats, as he was for Eliot, Pound, Auden. He thought my admiration for Yeats was the funniest thing in that part of London. It wasn’t until about three o’clock that I realized that he and I were drinking more than usual. I didn’t drink much at that time; Thomas drank much more than I did. I had the sense to leave. I went back to my chambers, Cartwright Gardens, took a cold bath, and just made it for the appointment. I remember the taxi ride over. The taxi was left over from the First World War, and when we arrived in Pall Mall—we could see the Atheneum—the driver said he didn’t feel he could get in. Finally I decided to abandon ship and take off on my own. So I went in and asked for Mr. Yeats. Very much like asking, “Is Mr. Ben Jonson here?” And he came down. He was much taller than I expected, and haggard. Big, though, big head, rather wonderful looking in a sort of a blunt, patrician kind of way, but there was something shrunken also. He told me he was just recovering from an illness. He was very courteous, and we went in to tea. At a certain point, I had a cigarette, and I asked him if he would like one. To my great surprise he said yes. So I gave him a Craven “A” and then lit it for him, and I thought, Immortality is mine! From now on it’s just a question of reaping the fruits of my effort. He did most of the talking. I asked him a few questions. He did not ask me any questions about myself, although he was extremely courteous and very kind. At one point he said, “I have reached the age when my daughter can beat me at croquet,” and I thought, Hurrah, he’s human! I made notes on the interview afterward, which I have probably lost. One comment in particular I remember. He said, “I never revise now”—you know how much he revised his stuff—“but in the interests of a more passionate syntax.” Now that struck me as a very good remark. I have no idea what it meant and still don’t know, but the longer I think about it, the better I like it. He recommended various books to me by his friend, the liar, Gogarty, and I forget who else. The main thing was just the presence and existence of my hero.
Dream Song 265
I don’t know one damned butterfly from another
my ignorance of the stars is formidable,
also of dogs & ferns
except that around my house one destroys the other
When I reckon up my real ignorance, pal,
I mumble “many returns”—
next time it will be nature & Thoreau
this time is Baudelaire if one had the skill
and even those problems O
At the mysterious urging of the body or Poe
reeled I with chance, insubordinate & a killer
O formal & elaborate I choose you
but I love too the spare, the hit-or-miss,
the mad, I sometimes can’t always tell them apart
As we fall apart, will you let me hear?
That would be good, that would be halfway to bliss
You said will you answer back? I cross my heart
& hope to die but not this year.
~ John Berryman
Music by John Allyn Smith Sails, “Okkervil River” (about John Berryman’s suicide)