The Voices: Intuition Among Poets and Madmen

Ginny Lowe Connors

Many people address the notion of a writer's voice. Less attention is paid to the willingness of writers, particularly poets, to listen to the voices: those auditory hallucinations or messages from the psyche, that so many people experience, but few acknowledge.

Recently I watched a video called The Soloist about a brilliant musician, Nathaniel Ayers, who was homeless and mentally ill, most likely suffering from schizophrenia. A newspaper reporter for the L.A. Times, Steve Lopez, wrote a series of articles about him and eventually a book. He was able to get him a cello and a place to live, but ultimately was very frustrated in his attempts to change the man. Lopez understood Ayers' potential, and envisioned the kind of life the gifted musician might have had; but he couldn't lead Ayers into that life. He couldn't cure him. The most he could do was offer him a little friendship, and even that was excruciatingly difficult at times.1

Ayers' chaotic and marginalized lifestyle was his response to the chorus of voices that rained down on him. Only his music offered him some peace, some transcendence. Since watching that very affecting film, I have been thinking about voices, and also about the power of art: music, poetry, visual art-any kind of art-to transform some of the chaos of existence.  

I think we all have voices in our head. We shut them out most of the time in order to function in the "real world." At the very least we quiet them to a dull, background murmur. According to anecdotal evidence, poets are able to hear the voices better than many other people. Or you might say they are less able or less willing to shut them up. Schizophrenics hear voices more profoundly than others; but the problem is, most schizophrenics are unable to shut them off; unable to stop listening to them enough to function effectively in society. I suppose religious prophets and seers of all kinds are also people who have acted in response to the urgency of their voices.

When I am writing poetry, if things are going well, I eventually open myself to an inner voice, and the words come from sources I can't identify. I'll look at a couple of lines in the emerging poem and think, Where did that come from? Or on rereading a draft, I'll notice a line, a phrase, or an image I never consciously aimed toward and wonder, How did that get there? When I'm lucky, these words that spoke to me when I was in the light trance of writing resound within the poem in a way that enlarges it, but does not disrupt it. Sometimes they are the bits that a writing workshop will pounce on first, wanting to edit them out. But I often leave these mysterious phrases in the poem, as they somehow feel right. When a writer experiences that, it's one kind of listening, and the words that came from some inner world are one kind of voice. Still, the voice is clearly an internal one.

But there are other occasions, usually when things are quiet, late at night or during a peaceful moment, that I hear another kind of voice; one that has a distinctly auditory quality, and it comes out of nowhere, lingers in my mind, and then fades away. It only happens once in a while, and it's always surprising. It never seems to be internal; it seems to arise from outside of me. The first time I remember it from childhood was when I was very young and quite feverish.  Someone called my name very distinctly, although no one was in the room. I didn't recognize the voice but very clearly heard it. 

Mysterious voices have called out to me numerous times since then. Sometimes it's someone calling my name. A few times I've awakened from deep sleep, hearing someone call Mom! although my children are fast asleep or away from home. Sometimes I hear a complete sentence, a judgment or a directive, and again it is not just me talking to myself in my mind, it has a distinct auditory quality, though I know it's not strictly "real." It's not always the same kind of voice either; it can have different tonalities just as real people's voices vary in pitch and timber. I don't think I'm crazy, but this is beyond what most people consider "normal." This must be the kind of voice that the mentally ill hear, only they hear such voices with much greater frequency than I do.

I believe we are all on a kind of continuum of experience and schizophrenics are at an extreme end of it, but their experience is not completely alien to the rest of us, bizarre as their actions may seem at times. A number of people I've asked have had experiences similar to mine. But are writers closer to the extreme end of the continuum than other people? Many have argued that there is a very fine line dividing poets from madmen. "The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact," Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night's Dream.2 

Julian Jaynes' theory that poets are better than most at accessing their primitive, bicameral minds is at least partially founded on his studies of schizophrenics.3  Schizophrenics, however, do not have the ability to make order out of the voices or control the voices. They are unwilling victims. Poets often seek out these voices and then work to shape the feelings and images that arise from the part of the brain that does not think logically or sequentially.

Czeslaw Milosz, in his poem "Ars Poetica?," speaks of an openness to "invisible guests":

                    The purpose of poetry is to remind us                                     

how difficult it is to remain just one person,                                     

for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,                                     

and invisible guests come in and out at will.4

It seems to me that poets are those who invite the guests in, while struggling hard to maintain equilibrium or to create coherence out of the various voices that tug at them. In fact, that might be the life's work of the poet or of any artist. Schizophrenics also wrestle with "invisible guests," but they are generally unable to maintain equilibrium or find coherence in the various forces that invade them.

Studies by Daniel Nettle and others have shown that poets, artists, bipolar individuals, and schizophrenics share certain characteristics that are often associated with mental illness. All of these groups score very high in measures of divergent thinking. Poets and visual artists also experience "cognitive disorganization" and an openness to unusual or illogical experiences. Serious poets (more so than people who occasionally dabble in poetry) and mental patients diverge widely, however, in levels of what Nettle calls motivation and emotional responsiveness. In Nettle's studies, the more deeply immersed in the serious pursuit of poetry or visual arts a subject was, the higher his scores were in these crucial areas. Serious pursuit of an art may be an important factor in helping poets achieve a healthy mental state. Nevertheless, a link between creative tendencies and vulnerability to mental illness has been established.5  

Perhaps Lord Byron understood this. He believed that poets were near to madness, but rarely succumbed to it because of the outlet poetry allowed them. He felt poetry to be "the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake."6 

Anxiety and joy are both correlated to dealing with aspects of the unconscious. Poets often move from free-ranging playful thought to more directed thought and intense concentration. As the poet continues working on a poem, she pushes in gradually toward a clarification of words, experience, and truth or vision; but typically there is leaping back and forth through various levels of consciousness. Tess Gallagher, in discussing the changes in her own work from early drafts to the final poem, emphasized the chaotic nature of her first attempts and then the gradual emergence of clarity as she continues the revision process. "You have to be willing to go into the chaos to bring back the beauties," she said.7 Gallagher expressed her openness to the chaotic thought processes of the preconscious mind and also her motivation to work with this material until some clarity could be achieved.  

While reading some of William Blake's work, Allen Ginsberg once had a "vision" of Blake that included both visual and auditory aspects and lasted for days. This experience was a highlight of Ginsberg's life, and he turned to drugs such as laughing gas, heroin, mescaline, ether, and LSD in an attempt to have other such mystical experiences.8

Whether deliberately or instinctively, poets tend to live in such a way that the doors between conscious thinking and a more intuitive, subconscious or preconscious kind of thinking can open without too much difficulty. When they hear the voices, they listen.

Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz claimed that his poem "Sun Stone" was written as if someone were "silently dictating…from far off and from nearby, from within my own chest." He referred to this kind of inspiration as "the current."9   

Tennyson listened to his dreams. He believed that he dreamt his poetry and told others that his poems came to him in dreams, in long passages.10  The power of the dream as a source of poetry is apparent when one considers the myriad poems and books of poems that refer to the dream state, including Chaucer's "Dream Visions," John Berryman's "Dream Songs," and poems by Blake, Sandburg, Pushkin, Turgenov, Hughes, and others.  

Society encourages us to tune in to the exterior world more fully than the interior one, but our interior worlds are often extremely vivid and intense. They are full of mystery and wisdom. If we can listen to the voices that arise mysteriously within us and beyond us, and transcribe them in a way that makes sense, we are tapping into something important and sharing it with the world.

It is when the private and public worlds are synthesized in a way that offers some insight or clarity that others can enter the world of the poem and take something from it. Tomas Tranströmer caught something of this idea in his poem "Preludes."  In one part of the poem, he writes:

Two truths draw nearer each other. One moves from inside,

one moves from outside-

and where they meet we have a chance to see ourselves.11

More so than in the work of many other poets, Tranströmer's poetic vision seems to occur in that space where inner and outer worlds intersect.

The surrealist poet Robert Desnos referred to the struggle to integrate contradictory forces that contribute to a good poem as "inspiration and control over inspiration." Like a shaman, a poet participates in the spiritual practice of communicating with mystery and finding ways of sharing it with others.12    

Poetry Madness: it's what I sometimes call the trancelike state that takes over when my writing is pouring forth from the intuitive mind, from the depths, because when it is most intense, it seems to completely take over. The rational mind is not in control. When the poetry madness gallops off with me, I simply hang on for the ride, knowing that later I can rein it in or more likely, that it will toss me off all too quickly. For someone who's mentally ill, it must be that the horse they can't let go of has galloped off into a wilderness that goes on and on, with no easy trail out.

Poets do have to exert some control. They have to shape their material, tune into the voices, let them carry them for awhile, and then find a path through that chaotic wilderness that will lead to something clear and true. That is the difficult task of the poet. I don't see how a poet can develop an authentic voice, unless he or she's willing to listen to her many voices, follow them for a while into a forest of associations, and return to the greater world with a vision or a personal truth.  

1 Lopez's book is called

The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. The movie based on it stars Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.

2 Shakespeare, William. <> (accessed 08/20/2009).

3 Jaynes, Julian.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976, 404-432.

4 Milosz, Czeslaw.

New and Collected Poems. New York: Harper Collins, 2003, 240-241.

5 Nettle, Daniel. "Schizoypy and Mental Health among Poets, Visual Artists, and Mathematicians."

Journal of Research in Personality 40(2006): 876-890.

6 Marchand, Leslie A. (ed.).

Byron's Letters and Journals, Vol.8:1821. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

7 Woodruff, Jay (ed.).

A Piece of Work. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993, 62.

8 Piirto, Jane. "The Creative Process in Poets."

Creativity in Domains: Faces of the Muse. Ed. J. Kaufman and J. Baer. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005, 7-8.

9 McAdam, A.. "Interview with Octavio Paz."

Paris Review (1991): 82-123.

10 Piirto, 11.

11 Tranströmer, Tomas, and Robin Fulton (translator).

the great enigma. New York: New Directions, 2006, 106.

12 Hirsh, Edwaed.

The Demon and the Ange. New York: Harcourt, 2002, 104-105.  




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