Poetry and Prozac

Shulman and Kerr

Poetry and Prozac

Shulman and Kerr

Poetry and Prozac
New books dissected over email.
March 30 1999 7:06 PM

Shulman and Kerr

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And now for something completely idle

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You've raised the unavoidable question: Would Frost have written poems if his father had behaved himself instead of binge-drinking and slashing his son with a metal dog chain (an ugly anecdote that appears in Meyers' book but, of course, not in Parini's), thus driving Frost's mother to pamper young Rob at the same time that she fostered his terror of the outside world? When young Rob attended Swedenborgian seminars with his mother, did the voices he heard whispering in his head constitute a genuine mystical event; were they a sane little kid's sympathetic attempt to join share his weird mother's weird experience; or did they indicate latent psychosis? Frost made a self-dramatizing, halfhearted gesture toward suicide in his late teens, strolling into a famously dangerous North Carolina swamp. Would he have written poems if his parents had reacted to this incident as they probably would today--that is to say, if they'd hauled him in to see a shrink and dosed him with Prozac?

It's utterly impossible to say, of course, but my guess is yes, he would have written poems. Like most clichés, the notion that creativity and madness walk hand and hand is often true. But there are categories of madness, distinct flavors of creativity. Think of Sylvia Plath's poems, written shortly before she killed herself; they're exhilarating and terrible and they stink of death. I think it's safe to say that Prozac would have altered the character of these poems, and quite possibly prevented them from being written. But it strikes me that Frost's madness/creativity matrix is altogether different. The teenage suicide attempt appears to have been his last purely romantic, self-destructive gesture. Many of the poems he subsequently wrote are horribly depressing, but at least they tend to pursue some kind of stoic vision of health. And many of the poems he wrote aren't depressing. In "Bond and Free," Frost praises the human capacity for thought, which flies far and wide and "cleaves the interstellar gloom." But he praises love even more:

Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

This is sweet but not sentimental because it's a warning not to want too much; it's a poem about how to live life, not a Plathian come-on to death. Writing seems to have helped keep Frost in balance. Detached contemplations like the above, playing with poetic forms, searching for the clearest language, were already a kind of medicine. Even the more scandalous Frost who emerges from Meyers' biography is remarkable not so much for his imbalance as for his phenomenal survival instinct. An invalid in his youth, he grew up to become a titan of energy, robust and long-lived. My speculation is that Prozac would have been partner and not enemy to his poems.

Then again, you never know. If antidepressants didn't harm Frost's vision, they might have killed his ambition. By cheering him up they might temper his mean-bastard egoism, making him less willing to selfishly spend the energy of friends and family, as a result making him less productive. And there are other qualities in Frost's writing that make me wonder. His poetry conceals as much as it reveals; he lusted after the love of an audience; he was a wizard at irony; and he often concluded his poems with aphorisms so apt and ringing they bear comparison to the punch line of a perfectly told joke. Sometimes he reminds me less of a poet than a performer, especially a comedian--and comedians don't always respond so well to psychiatric help. Look at John Cleese: When he was young and had yet to understand his rage, he played the unforgettable, abusive Basil Fawlty and bounced up and down in a freaky Hitler goosestep. Now he's had therapy, and he goes around talking about the importance of working through anger. Don't get me wrong: I'm happy if he's happy. But the funny thing is, he looks angrier now. And the sad thing is he's no longer very funny.

Sorry to pull a spiky Zen on you, but yes he would have written his beautiful poems; no he wouldn't but he and his family would have been happier and in the final analysis isn't that more valuable; anyway, we'll never know. Tomorrow, I'd like to pursue a twist on your question. It is, I admit, a deeply idle one. I wondered: If Frost were alive and writing today, would America embrace his style of poetry the way it did earlier in the century? Or would he even be a poet? Would his drive to perform lead him to some other creative arena, where he could achieve a more massive success than poetry today allows?

leftyesspacer/Slate247/990329_frost.jpghttp://img.slate.com/mediafalseRobert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini20111

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Polly Shulman is a senior editor at Discover magazine. Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate. This week they discuss Robert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini (click here to buy the book).