Friday, May 29, 2009

Anne Sexton

I have been of late reading the biography of Anne Sexton written by Diane Wood Middlebrook, a gift from another writer friend. I am a fan of Sexton’s poetry, and being a writer myself, obviously I am interested in the inner workings of successful poet.

The biography is quite candid and brings up several questions in my mind and I have heard the same come up among other writer/poets. Is there a link to creativity and internal turmoil? In communications with others it may seem the case but everyone is different inside and different on what goes on outside.

Anyway, where I am going with this is I came across this article and thought I would share it.

November 14, 1994
Exploring the Links Between Depression, Writers and Suicide

When the poet Anne Sexton learned of Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963, she was horrified. "That death was mine," she said. Eleven years later, wrapped in a fur coat that once belonged to her mother, she sat in her car with the engine running in a closed garage and ended her life.

Literary artists have always been drawn to death as a subject, but a disproportionate number of them have also courted it in their personal lives. In a daylong conference at the 92d Street Y on Friday, several scholars and writers explored the links between depression, creativity and suicide, primarily in the life and work of Sexton, Plath and Ernest Hemingway. The conference,

"Wanting to Die: Suicide and American Literature," was organized by the American Suicide Foundation.

The novelist William Styron recounted his own battle with depression, told in his book "Darkness Visible," and pointed to the warning signs of his illness in his novels. "I now realize that depression and thoughts of suicide have been an integral part of my creative personality throughout my life," he said.

Three of the main characters in his novels kill themselves, Mr. Styron said. Moreover, the depressive mental states that he described in detail from "Lie Down in Darkness" and "Sophie's Choice" uncannily anticipated his own illness.

In rereading his work, Mr. Styron said, "I began to realize all my work was of an incipient depressive personality struggling to prevent the demons of mood disorder from crowding in."

Mr. Styron joins a long and illustrious roster of literary figures who battled depression and despair. Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament," said writers were 10 to 20 times as likely as other people to suffer manic-depressive or depressive illnesses, which lead to suicide more often than any other mental disorders do.

It is not surprising that these mood disorders seem most at home in the artistic mind. "The cognitive style of manic-depression overlaps with the creative temperament," Ms. Jamison said. Researchers have found that in a mildly manic state, subjects think more quickly, fluidly and originally. In a depressed state, subjects are self-critical and obsessive, an ideal frame of mind for revision and editing. "When we think of creative writers," Ms. Jamison said, "we think of boldness, sensitivity, restlessness, discontent; this is the manic-depressive temperament."

The demons that pursued Mr. Styron gave Sexton her richest subject matter, and eventually consumed her. Diane Middlebrook, the author of a recent biography of Sexton, said that initially she resisted ending her biography with the suicide, for fear that it would dismantle the image of Sexton as a woman who found in the wreckage of her life the raw material from which she constructed poetry of unusual power and immediacy.

In the end, she acceded to Sexton's wishes and, so to speak, assisted in her suicide. "She neither could have nor should have been prevented from ending her life that day," Ms. Middlebrook said. "The best thing I could do as a biographer was honor her intention without flinching."

Herbert Hendin, a professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and then executive director of the American Suicide Foundation, rejected the notion that Sexton's suicide was inevitable. "This is tempting to therapists and biographers," he said. "It softens the desperation of the act and provides solace for the reader."

Both Ms. Middlebrook and Sexton's analyst, Dr. Martin T. Orne, made the same mistake, he said, in not challenging a central premise governing Sexton's psychiatric treatment, namely that she had nothing to offer but her poetry.

Perhaps more than other artists, writers can be seduced by the attractiveness of suicide as a means of controlling their life story. Several speakers pointed out the tendency of suicide to become a powerful image or metaphor, one that takes root in the mind and flourishes. "Both Sylvia Plath and Sexton shared the notion that a great artist's life must end in death," Ms. Middlebrook said. "You stop before you write more bad stuff. Sexton applauded Hemingway's suicide. She said 'Good for him.' "

Hemingway, of course, was almost programmed for suicide. His father killed himself, and so did a brother and a sister. Evidence of his obsession with death and decay appears in his earliest juvenile writing and constitutes his grand theme in the mature work.

"He blamed his father for committing suicide, because he saw it as cowardice," said Scott Donaldson, the author of "By Force of Will," a biography of Hemingway. "It was not suicide as suicide that got to him, but the idea of a guy running away from a fight." In the end, Hemingway's resolve unraveled as his health failed and he became subject to paranoid delusions.
As a partial explanation of the nearly irresistible pull of suicidal tendencies, Robert Jay Lifton, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the City University of New York, proposed something he called the suicide construct. The construct is an internalized image or idea of oneself as a suicide that often comes from a family member who has committed suicide. "There is also the quest for a future in suicide, the desire to make a statement in a way that the person could not in life," he said. Mr. Lifton described the novelist Yukio Mishima as having a suicide construct so strong that death for him became something like an erotic object.

Plath, like Hemingway, tried to confront her stalker. "She had to go after her dead father and look him in the eye," said A. Alvarez, a poet, critic and novelist and a friend of Plath. "For her, death was a violent struggle with a thug. She handled it with a certain relish and sardonic energy."

Mr. Alvarez argued that Plath's death was the "intolerable cost of a certain type of modernist art." Like Robert Lowell and John Berryman, she used her own sickness as subject matter. "This solitary enterprise, when you push it in a certain way, is a high-risk activity," he said. "The byproduct of her particular form of originality was that she ended up killing herself."

Whatever your take is on the subject, you must admit that many times the inspiration comes from the hurting we have inside. Many of us struggle and pour out that pain.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I saw a hummingbird for the first time this year. Sitting out back on the deck enjoying the afternoon sun, and a cocktail. The only thing to do was to get out the old feeder and make some hummingbird nectar so the little guys stay around the area. Here is the secret recipe:

2 Cups Sugar
3 Cups Water

Bring water to a boil, add sugar and continue boiling
one minute. Cool one hour and add red food coloring
if desired. Store in refrigerator.

This was a recipe given to my daughter Meg when she was around five or so by someone I worked with and his wife. As you can see, not too complicated but a proven mix that attracts the hummingbird and keeps them coming back for more.

This couple, Maynard and Patty, had just built a new log home north of Wausau deep in the woods. Today I couldn’t take you there without getting lost first but it was in an area where the next house was miles away.

We were invited there a few times and our first visit was around the beginning of June. The couple wanted to show us the house now that it was completed except for some landscaping projects. I clearly remember the incredible number of hummingbirds flying around the yard. They had feeders all over the property for hummingbirds, but also seed feeders for most other birds, so you can imagine that the air was full of every kind of Wisconsin bird. It was unbelievable to me as I am a bird nut and could spend hours patiently waiting for any kind of bird to fly up to the feeder.

So every year when the first hummingbird is spotted I think of them and the “swarm” of hummingbirds that they could enjoy on a regular basis. Me, I am just glad to have one set flying within the airspace of my yard here in a small town in central Wisconsin. The small creature adds beauty and grace to an afternoon of enjoying the warm sun, family and the lens of my camera.

Reminds me of a poem I had written a few years back entitled “Hummingbird” which ties the frantic-like search they have for food and our need we have for relationships and love in our lives as if it were food we frantically needed.


The sun shone today,
leaving a ray of hope on the pillow,
caressed gently by the warm breeze,
I pretend to sleep.

Lying here next to you,
I listen, hearing your shallow breath—
content to watch an angel
slowly emerge from secret dreams.

In the distance outside,
past the blue faded window sill,
surrounded by the bloom of the honeysuckle
I hear the hummingbirds dance.

Thirsting for the sweet taste
of a nectar reserved for them—
attracted by the color and scent,
longing for the reward it seeks.

Their beating wings give away the secret,
the intent of their longing desire,
never to tire in the search,
until it has tasted them all.

Laying silently, as if lifeless
a man hoping to believe it has become real,
searching for the reasons why we try,
not understanding this wall we’ve built.

A westerly wind whistles through the screen
moving sheer curtains as waves of the sea.
And as I pray for the sun to continue to shine,
I hear the distant rolling of the thunder.

To end this blog I just have to include the writing on the back of the recipe card that I almost forgot was there. The card was specifically meant for my daughter and the couple thought it necessary to include any insight that would help in the hummingbird world. Here’s what they wrote:

“First time in spring (usually they come back 2nd week of May)
make stronger using 2 cups of sugar - 2 cups of water
to attract them. If you feed them the strong stuff all the time they
may develop diabetes, then their eyesight goes and they fly into
stuff and act hyper…kind of like your Dad”.

So now is the time to get that hummingbird feeder out along with any other bird feeder you have yet to fill and enjoy our feathered friends.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

June Bug

I find more and more ironic-ish things in life that really show I need to keep life itself and all the little things that go wrong in perspective. It appears that we could let the small stuff continually and daily keep us from seeing the big picture and understand today is today, and not to trivialize all the junk that seems to come up.

I write this because last year I was witness to something that made me think about this and yet today, continue to bring it up in my head from time to time. It was something that I planned on writing a short story on but as you can tell, never got its wheels going. So I decided to enter this as a long overdue blog entry.

Here it is:

It was last year; I would say early to mid summer. As most American males, and I don’t leave out all the hard working woman of the land, but like most males (in my neighborhood) I trekked out on a Saturday afternoon for the weekly lawn mowing chore. In my backyard I have a shed that holds all of my treasured gardening tools, purchased to ensure my Garden of Eden stays that way. As I walk to the shed I pick up a few lost twigs which the maple in the far corner seems to shed each week and enjoys watching me from above picking up after it. Next to the shed is a rain barrel that is an essential eyesore in my backyard when the dry July/August weeks appear. I have the habit of peering into the barrel every time I walk by due to finding a few dead and rotting corpses floating in the pea green water. The bloated maggot infested gray squirrel was the grossest and by far had the greatest stench.

Today looking into the barrel, no rotting corpse of a tree crawling rodent or a starling that thought he could swan dive into the fifty-five gallon barrel without consequence. But I did notice a lone June bug floating in the center of the barrel, and not seemingly enjoying the chore. I watched him for a moment, really without much thought, and soon went about my lawn-beautifying chore.

I must admit I am a fanatic when it comes to my lawn and flower gardens needing them to look their best at all times. This being said, you can now understand that I may mow my lawn more than once a week just so the clippings aren’t to long, making the backyard look like the hayfields which are prevalent here in Wisconsin. I also have to disclose to you that if I don’t get to the lawn early enough and the clipping become too long for me to tolerate, I have a lawn sweeper that picks them up efficiently and with minimal effort.

Well it is now a week and again I mosey on back to the shed to start up the ole Briggs and Stratton engine to again trim away at the sea of green around my house. And again I look inside the dreaded rain barrel to see what the evil thing has captured this week, hoping it isn’t some decapitated raccoon, or the neighbors constantly barking dog. To my astonishment, I see the June bug floating in the imitation pond, his legs still pumping away trying to find the sandy beach. I remember thinking to myself that this could not be in any way the same June bug from last week. But off I went to trim away at the fine hairs of the backyard, keeping up with the broadleaved assassins who tirelessly try to take over the lawn.

Now it is week three of this little tale. Again it is time to mow the grass. It was a perfect day, clear blue skies and a hint of a southerly breeze that made the trees rustle just enough to make the maple seems alive. As I walk to the shed to retrieve the mower I perform my usual routine and peek into the rain barrel, which is quite full due to the rain that week. And as I look into the barrel I see nothing resembling a lost kitten or small primate that may have been lured into the barrel to meet its demise. But I do find…yes you guessed it! That damn June bug floating in the rain barrel, the water now clearer due to the refreshing rain captured off the roof of the shed. Now at this point I am in awe of this fat, sticky legged insect, for he is still kicking away trying to find some place that he can latch those sticky legs on to get out of the rain barrel. But now his efforts seem lethargic and I notice little clumps of white on his legs, though not sure what that is all about I think it is the same whitening we get when we lay in the bathtub too long, and our hands and feet get waterlogged and turn white.

At this point I am thinking enough is enough. This little June bug has withstood three weeks that I know of, in the rain barrel and is still adamant on getting the hell out. Here is where I decide to get involved and become the June bugs savior. I find a small twig, graciously donated by the maple tree and dip it in the water in front of the floating insect. After a bit the June bug realizes that this could be a good thing for him and latched his waterlogged limbs onto the stick with whatever strength he has left. Happy to help I then take the stick and set it on the lush green grass for him to dry off and get back his strength to continue his bug life for whatever that amounts to.

Now at this point I’m feeling pretty good about the whole thing. A beautiful day, a warm sun with a slight breeze to keep the sweat from forming those dark stains around the armpit area (you know the ones). Collecting my thoughts a bit, I now reset my priorities on the task at hand. Mr. June bug who is now comfortably sitting in the grass seemed to be doing just fine clinging to the green heaven, which I would think it would seem after being in a watery hell for three friggin’ weeks.

Looking down at him one last time and about ready to turn to get some lawn work done, in a split second a crow swoops down and snatches the June bug up and away he goes, into the clear blue sky, drenched by the warm sun, following the southerly breeze just to be eaten in the day of his deliverance. How ironic can that be? Saved only to be devoured by another means. Such is life. Enjoy what we have left of it because at any time, something could change the things we have now, leaving what we thought was mundane into the things we wished we could have again.