If you are a young poet and you happen to suffer depression, these comments are intended for you. Just like comedy and tragedy are inextricably linked, so are poetry and depression. Yes, Rumi and the ecstatic poets represent a pinnacle of the art and their poems are gifts to the world–but so are your poems. Perhaps even more so. Yes, it’s true.
Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Earnest Hemingway, even JK Rowling, all suffered depression. The difference is they did not let depression stop them. Indeed, they used it. It fired them the way a ceramic pot gets fired in a kiln. Depression can serve to burn away the unimportant and feel what is truly real and alive–yes, often at great personal cost. I’m afraid that is the price of a human birth into the life of dukkha, as the Buddhists say, a life of anxiety — like a wheel out of balance. And if you want to feel life truly and deeply, then your price will be even higher.
But here is the thing: to use your depression this way, you must work at your art with your whole being, as if your whole life depended on it. You must fight with everything you’ve got, even when the “black dog,” as Churchill called it, stalks you. You must get beneath it and get down to bedrock, to what truly supports you. You must fight by living your life deeply and fearlessly and believing your contribution is unique and meaningful. They did. You can too. And if you feel fearful, as we all do at times, well then feel it fully and deeply. Then swallow hard and keep going. Do this a few times and fear’s hold over you will diminish over time, I promise you.
As a life-long depression sufferer, I have come to believe depression has performed a role in evolution. I think some types of it have been selected for the same way a strong throwing arm, complex vocal chords and big boobs were. I believe depression sometimes serves a tribal purpose. Depressives, oddly enough, are often natural leaders who are able to fuse the physical world with the spiritual. The deep humanity and compassion in the midst of armageddon shown by Churchill and Lincoln was no accident. I’m not alone in that thought either.
If you would like to talk privately about this topic, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a way out of the fog. But whatever you do, keep writing.
Yours in art and labor,