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^Poetry and Schizophrenia Ronald William Pies It is often hard to distinguish poetry from thought process disorder , as students of E. E. Cummings (and many another twentiethcentury poet) can attest. Inasmuch as the diagnosis of schizophrenia is still ambiguous—though, I trust, no longer the stuff of mythology1— statements about schizophrenic thought or language are hazardous. A discussion of the nature of schizophrenia is beyond the scope of this paper; the reader in need of such background may refer to any reputable textbook of psychiatry.2 I shall make the assumption that schizophrenia is fundamentally a thought process disorder, entailing various syntactic and semantic aberrations. Although readers will have to satisfy themselves of this by consulting other sources,3 I do feel I owe at least the following examples of how the disordered process of schizophrenic thought manifests itself in language. 1. The passage quoted below is taken from a schizophrenic production entitled "Equalitized Metabolic Demention Metabolism": "Improper wave length—wave length changes, later visible death. That is a moving troUysis similar to circulation of life action. Born high focussating action may die through wave length charge and still live until visible death takes place. . . . Metabolism to dimension differ in every person is of actions of metabolism and dimension balancing. . . ."* Note the bizarre grammar, syntax, and neologisms in this passage. 2. The following passage was written by a man who had spent two years at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar: "I'm too utterly weary from battling with my financial-religious and general-religious problems to be able to survive any shock of learning that unhintably hard-won progress supposed to have been earned in the fraternal-religious problem is illusory. For that would wreck me—in my critically exhausted condition—with horror lest humanity—contrarily from being faith-imbued joy-multipliers of Revelations All Embracing God or Unfathomably Progressive Universe— . . . ."5 Note the plausible beginning, which subtly "decays" as the passage concludes. 14 POETRY AND SCHIZOPHRENIA 3. A schizophrenic patient was asked to interpret some proverbs . Two of his responses follow: a) When the cat's away, the mice will play. Response: "The last supper of Jesus, all those that kissed the novitia, the coviüa. The political world is too much, we can't fight it, we can't see murder."6 b) A rolling stone gathers no moss. Response: "A rolling stone gathers no moss—Christ. Breaking chain stores all together. Independency."7 The burden of this paper will be to adumbrate some of the differences between such schizophrenic locutions and poetic utterance . Obviously, the nature of poetry is also a thorny issue. Very simply, I have been guided by literary tradition and convention, with respect to what is poetry and who is a poet. Any other standard at this juncture would cast us hopelessly adrift. Nevertheless, as we shall see, there is often an ambiguous melding of "schizophrenic" and "poetic" utterance.8 In fact, such a case shall be the focus of this paper. The critic R. P. Blackmur once rebuked the poet E. E. Cummings for depriving words of their own meanings, and substituting meanings of his own.9 This observation coincides with some of Harry Stack Sullivan's ideas about schizophrenia. ''Thinking," said Sullivan, "... is the final refinement of the reverie processes by which we meet life. The refinement is largely the reference to other people as potential hearers. In the schizophrenic, this reference to other people is always tenuous."10 In poetry, there is usually a tension between private and public meaning. In schizophrenic writing, there is a drastic skewing toward the private. Further, what appears to be metaphor in schizophrenic writing is often private language. To the extent that this is true, schizophrenic writing becomes less a poem and more a code, or logogriph. To illustrate my claim, I should like to examine a poem by Christopher Smart. Smart provides one of the most tragic and intriguing cases in literary and psychiatric history. A scholar of Pembroke College, Cambridge , Smart was a man of enormous erudition; he had a surpassing knowledge of the classics, the Bible, and of cabalistic lore. He was also subject to bouts of insanity. It is not clear...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 13-23
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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