Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process edited by Richard M. Berlin
Poets on Prozac is a collection of essays, interspersed with poetry, by a number of published poets who have been afflicted by various psychiatric disorders; such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and substance abuse. The poets investigate how mental illness and various therapeutic methods, such as psychoanalysis, affect their creative process. This review will concentrate on the role and function that drugs play in this process, and the manner in which mental illness and creativity is described as functioning.
The collection’s over-arching intention is to shatter “the notion that madness fuels creativity”, and in the main the personal accounts explore the relationship between psychiatric disorders and poetic creativity as being largely antagonistic, i.e. a block on creativity. In our conclusion, the extent of the relationship between “madness” and “creativity” will be questioned.
A poet’s creative process can be directly affected by psychiatric disorders. Bipolar, for example, might produce a period of hyper-creativity, but this tends to be considered a hindrance, unsustainable, and detrimental to the health and lifestyle of the poet. Ren Powell, in My Name is Not Alice, even describes throwing away or even burning her writing from these manic periods. Overall, while a disorder can provide a poetic insight into the human condition, the consensus of the writers is that mental disorder largely inhibits the practical work of the poet.
Also, for some of the writers, poetry’s relationship with their particular psychiatric disorder often takes the form of a therapeutic context, and is not simply a product of “madness”. For instance, Powell wrote:
I also began to look at my writing as a private diagnostic tool. Keeping a journal and reading the previous night’s entry helped me be objective about my mental state (Berlin 57)
Here, writing and poetry therapeutically serve, through hindsight and reflection, the poet. In this respect, poetry as an imaginal space is able to teach the poet about their disorder through self-reference. Interestingly, it is analogous to the psychedelic experience: also a tool of self-discovery. As Erica Dyck writes in Psychedelic Psychiatry, psychedelics were “chemicals to trigger new perceptions of the self” in patients (Dyck 2008, 31). And, indeed, the poetic connection was also partially established by Dr. Oscar Janiger’s research on LSD and the creative process, where writer participants produced poetry during and after experiences with the medicine (de Rios 2003).
However, the depiction of medicines in Poets on Prozac is very different, not least because they’re not dealing with psychedelics in any of the narratives. Medicines that effectively treated Powell’s disorder were described as “Alice’s mushroom” in their pursuit. Highly resistant to many treatments, unable to cope well with certain side-effects, Powell’s drugs were not for inspiration and therapy—this role is assumed by poetry—but rather as treatments that suppressed an altered state of consciousness that was prohibitive to the creative process. The impact of drugs, though not direct or ‘inspirational’, were instrumental in creating the conditions for poetry, and thus its use as therapy, and enjoyment as hobby or profession.
In Chemical Zen, Andrew Hudgins writes: “I was a fire station in which the alarm bells seldom stopped clanging and the fireman are exhausted and indifferent, Still I resisted medication. Like a lot of artists, like a lot of people, I was afraid drugs would cloud my mind, my understanding, my imagination” (Berlin 163). This attitude was partly due to having cortisine psychosis while taking prednisone, which he felt was similar to “the near-hysteria of anxiety”. However a different drug produced a different effect for Hudgins:
With the Paxil in my system, I could feel myself achieving a hint of chemical Zen, the longed-for detachment I could always see, imagine, and understand but could never achieve. I could let misunderstanding, disagreements, and jokes go by without obsessing about whether someone meant to insult me or not (Berlin 165)
There is a strong bio-chemical approach in this collection, wherein a combination of medications is tried and tested – often in what feels like a futile attempt that compounds conditions like depression for the poets – in order to return a patient to a ‘normal’ state of functioning.
The other place in which drugs are framed within the discourse of this collection is through substance abuse. In Dark Gifts, Gwynth Lewis writes :”When I eventually realized that I had become hooked on alcohol and that my only chance of writing anything was to stop drinking” (Berlin 16). For Lewis, poetry provided context and insight for drinking and depression, especially when her history of writing was later examined with a psychotherapist. Moreover, she describes her poetry as the minimal level of reality she required to function—in this light the creative process appears to act as medicine, counteracting the unreality of depression, and substance abuse.
Unsurprisingly, Sylvia Plath is an oft mentioned name, with Ted Hughes getting the odd obligatory sly dig. The ‘Sylvia Plath effect’ was coined by psychologist James Kaufman and refers to the premise that poets are more inclined to mental illness than other creative groups. In many respects this underpins the relevance of the whole text: It’s an exploration of this supposed connection and the manner in which the creative process is affected. However, as a collection, it is too narrow in its focus to garner anything too meaningful. Many of the essays read very similarly, and there is very little methodological or creative tension (and while there is some very engaging poetry, there are also some examples that are self-analytical to the point of banal self-obsession—more therapeutic than poetic, no doubt.)
On a superficial level, the collection is interesting so far as it gives voice to contemporary poets about a subject, or inter-relation, that has long held fascination. However, in try to dispel the myth that creativity is a product of madness, the collection seemingly pushes the perspective too far the other way. Through medication, therapies, and the bearing of mental afflictions, there is a pre-occupation with being in a ‘normal’ state to write, as if high productivity is the correct method of writing poetry. While this may allow words on a factory-level function, it is certainly no guarantee of a favourable qualitative analysis—and ultimately this narrowly defines the creative process therapeutically. Is the poetic inspiration of madness only ever self-directed?
Berlin, Richard M. Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process. John Hopkins Press. Baltimore. 2008. Print
De Rios, Marlene Dobkin, Oscar Janiger. LSD, Spirituality and the Creative Process. Rochester. Park Street Press. 2003. Print
Dyck, Erika. Psychedelic Psychiatry: From Clinic to Campus. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press. 2008. Print