Saturday, April 26, 2014

`A Splendidly Sane Man'

In preparation for reviewing his new collection of poems, Accepting the Disaster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), for The Quarterly Conversation, I reread Joshua Mehigan’s first book, The Optimist (Ohio University Press, 2004), and was pleasantly reassured. It’s a wonderful volume, strong and mature for so young a poet, though I’m reading it a little differently in light of Mehigan’s more recent work; in particular, his long poem “The Orange Bottle,” which I take to be a minor masterpiece (and which is collected in the new book), and his essay “I Thought You Were a Poet: A Notebook.” In the latter, Mehigan looks at the centuries-old romantic linkage of madness and poetry. Referring to his own diagnosis with a “mood disorder,” writes: 

“Mine spurs me and furnishes a worldview. But because it also sometimes makes me awkward and disagreeable, I’ve grown to consider poetry as, in part, a set of tactics for offering my Best Self to the world. This doesn’t mean I write poems to make friends or be straightforwardly charming. But because forethought and discretion rarely appear in my personal life, I like to cultivate them in my poems.” 

This is witty and contrarian and, I suspect, true. It also reminds me of what G.K. Chesterton wrote about one of his heroes, Dr. Johnson: 

“Johnson, it may be repeated, was a splendidly sane man who knew he was a little mad. He was the very opposite of the man who rejoices with the skylark and quarrels with the dinner; who is an optimist to his publisher, and a pessimist to his wife. Johnson was melancholy by physical and mental trend…But his unconquerable courage and commonsense led him to defy his own temperament in every detail of daily life; so that he was cheerful in his conversation and sad only in his books.” 

In 2003, three years after the death of his friend Edgar Bowers, Mehigan participated in a conference at UCLA dedicated to the great poet. His remembrance of Bowers was titled “Introduction to Poetry,” which is also the title of a poem Mehigan dedicated to him and collected in The Optimist. It concludes like this, referring to “the great and dying man” (that is, Bowers): 

“He hears his voice once more, cadence and rest,
Weighing, in spite of each step’s falling sound
Of looking back, how poetry began.”

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