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i^r Poetry from the Asylum Hayden Carruth's The Bloomingdale Papers Lillian Feder Poems about confinement in a mental asylum, whether by an established poet or an amateur, have certain common features. Inevitably , such writers feel themselves imprisoned, although there are times when the asylum also seems a haven; and in their limited physical environment, they use what they have—the atmosphere and routine, the doctors, other patients, the treatment, and the symptoms and effects of their illness—as materials for self-exploration in poetry. Despite such similarities, there is no characteristic asylum poetry. Even when writing is clearly an act of survival, it is a product of a poet's individual personality and talent interpreting the world he or she has internalized when all defenses outside the walls of the asylum have failed. Many poets have written about their experiences in mental institutions, but no one has conveyed the physical and emotional "actuality" as vividly as has Hayden Carruth in The Bloomingdale Papers. ' The struggle against psychic dissolution is a common subject of modern poetry, but The Bloomingdale Papers is unusual in its explicit treatment of writing as an effort toward self-restitution. In fact, the poem discloses processes of selfhood and creation that are closely related and sometimes indistinguishable. For this reason alone it deserves attention, which surprisingly it has not received, from literary critics, psychologists, and psychiatrists. It is now more than thirty years since Carruth wrote The Bloomingdale Papers; but, as I will demonstiate in this essay, a study of his later poetry indicates that his apprehension of his psychic experience in the very act of writing this early poem remains fundamental to his entire development as a major contemporary American poet. In his "Explanation and Apology, Twenty Years After," which serves as an introduction to The Bloomingdale Papers, Carruth describes Lillian Feder 113 the circumstances under which the poem was written and tells why he agreed to its publication in 1975. Near the end of the summer of 1953, having suffered a breakdown after years of mental illness, he entered the White Plains Psychiatric Division of New York Hospital, known as Bloomingdale. After a few months of what seemed ineffectual treatment and no perceptible change in his condition, Carruth took the suggestion of one of his doctors that he "write something that might be helpful to him and his colleagues in their consideration of [his] case" (BP, vii), the result being "the poem, or sequence of poems, in this book" (BP, viii). The Bloomingdale Papers deals with only the first period of his confinement. In January 1954, still at the institution , Carruth had another breakdown. "Thereafter," he says, "I wrote no more" (BP, viii). He does not say exactly how long he remained at Bloomingdale after having been subjected to electioshock treatments for the second breakdown, but does refer to "many months" of playing solitaire at the institution. After leaving Bloomingdale, Carruth says, he "apparently" revised excerpts from the poem which "were included in [his] first book, The Crow and the Heart (1959)" (BP, viii). He attributes his vagueness about revising these portions and his lapse of memory regarding the poem as a whole to the effects of the electioshock therapy. Years later, when the editors at the University of Georgia Press, who had been shown a copy by his friend Albert Christ-Janer, offered to publish it, his "first inclination was to burn it" (BP, viii-ix). Although critical of the diction, the "tight-lipped psychopathic compression" (BP, ix), he nonetheless agreed to publication partly because friends urged him to do so and partly because of the nature of the poem itself. His explication of this second motive suggests that he had reasons other than a doctor's suggestion for writing this poem and elucidates some of its basic qualities. His comments are worth quoting at length: ... I have the impression from reading the whole poem that in spite of the bad writing—in some sense even because of it—the total effect is what it should be, the truth of a spirit caged and struggling. Readers should remember that for people in certain crises of disintegrating personality the act of writing, or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 112-127
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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