“Readers would be rightly insulted if they felt I'd assumed they were less smart or less sophisticated than I am. That would be unbearably condescending. And anyway they like some puzzlement, some baroque, perhaps, and certainly some material that doesn't release all its savor at a first lick. Really, writers and readers alike, as you know, we work beyond our own intelligence; necessarily so. That's the raison d'etre, the road to the trance that art exists to provide.”
“One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most `intellectual’ piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic.”
I’ve just finished reading Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) by Les Murray, speaker of the first passage above in his Paris Review interview. In this brief prose chronicle, the Australian poet describes his bouts of depression, “my brain boiling with a confusion of stuff not worth calling thought or imagery: it was more like shredded mental kelp marinaded in pure pain.” Most first-person accounts I’ve read of depression and other mental illnesses implicitly seek the reader’s pity or admiration, whereas Murray explicitly repudiates “victim-addiction, the sick love of our symptoms that causes us to clutch them to us and indulge them.” Murray’s book stands as writing, not a tawdry tell-all.
Throughout the book, despite obvious differences, I was reminded of the world’s other great living English-language poet, Geoffrey Hill, speaker of the second passage above. Hill was born in 1932; Murray, 1938. Both are blessed with linguistic virtuosity, deep immersion in literary tradition, devotion to religion, commanding but outsider status within their literary cultures – and pharmaceutically treated clinical depression. In his Paris Review interview, Hill says:
“There are certain kinds of chronic depression that have been traced to chemical imbalance in the brain. In retrospect, I don’t know how I survived almost sixty years without the medication I now have. From late childhood, I suffered from chronic depression, which was accompanied by various exhausting obsessive-compulsive phobias. Totally undiagnosed, of course. I now see that the kind of perfectionism at which I was aiming in the earlier books was, so to speak, the acceptable fact of this obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
The tone is clinical, admirably so, but from the inside and without pity. Both poets are candid about their illness, citing it in poems, prose and interviews, but neither wears it as a trophy. Murray says in his memoir: “Mental illness is apt to make you into a bore” – words true and politically proscribed in our faux-sensitive age. Both have been castigated for the prodigality of their gifts, their perceived “elitism” and, most severely, their Christianity. Murray is the more demotic of the two, more rageful, less careful and polite. With bracing, bullish candor he says to the Paris Review interviewer:
“I would never place myself on any left-right axis. That's `bullet in the back of the head’ language, gulag language. To hell with it. That is the terminology of those who are out to co-opt art and prevent it from moving on. It's the currency of those who fund our weak poets on condition that the baby boomers will never be superseded. . . . I'm a dissident author; the deadliest inertia is to conform with your times.”
The twenty-nine-page text of Killing the Black Dog is followed by a seven-page afterword and twenty-four “Black Dog Poems,” written during the period Murray calls the “Big Sick.” Among them is “Memories of the Height-To-Weight Ratio,” including this stanza:
“Modernism’s not modern: it’s police and despair.
I wear it as fat, and it gnawed off my hair
as my typewriter clicked over gulfs and birch spaces
where the passive voice muffled enormity and faces.”