The following is an excerpt from a new book of creative nonfiction, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, published this fall by Riverhead Books.
ALDOUS HUXLEY’S “Accidie” begins with a look at the desert monks and their depiction of the daemon meridianus, or noonday demon, as a “fiend of deadly subtlety, who was not afraid to walk by day.” The monks learned, Huxley notes, that this demon could seize upon any weakness, however small, in order to take a monk “through disgust and lassitude into the black depths of despair and hopeless unbelief. When that happened the demon smiled and took his departure, conscious that he had done a good day’s work.”
Huxley then traces, in a brisk tour de force, “the progress of acedia” through the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Considered a demon or a vice by early Christian monks, acedia in the Renaissance was thought of as a physical ailment, called the vapors, or spleen. By the early eighteenth century, “accidie was still, if not a sin, at least a disease.” But, Huxley adds, “a change was at hand.” What the poet Matthew Green termed “the sin of worldly sorrow” in 1837 was becoming “a literary virtue, a spiritual mode…. Then came the nineteenth century and Romanticism; and with them the triumph of the meridian demon. Accidie in its most complicated and deadly form, a mixture of boredom, sorrow, and despair, was now an inspiration to the greatest poets and novelists, and it has remained so to this day.”
When I read this, I felt that Huxley was describing my education as a poet. For many years, ever since I entered the resolutely secular atmosphere of Bennington College, I had assumed that religion was no longer a part of my life. This was not a conscious rebellion on my part. I had gladly attended church with my family all through high school, had sung in a choir, read books such as Man’s Search for Meaning for a Sunday class, and discovered the writings of Evelyn Underhill on my own. I also had staggered through a dense little paperback containing Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death, not even half comprehending what was there but persisting nonetheless.
At Bennington, I decided that religion did not interest me anymore. Literature made a viable substitute, and my English professor during freshman year, the poet Ben Belitt, immersed his students in a contemplative, line-by-line reading of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and also led us through exquisitely detailed and probing exegeses of such poets as Hopkins, Pound, and Eliot. For the first time in my life I was elated by poetry, astonished to find that so much meaning could be packed into so few words. I could read this way forever, I thought, and make teaching literature my life’s work. But Belitt had other ideas. He was the first person who suggested to me that I was a poet, and that I had not only to read, but to write as well.
Hesitantly, humbly, awed to discover how much poems could signify, I made a first attempt, mustering some fifteen words. Soon I was writing in earnest, and reading all the poetry I could find. As a junior I indulged myself in a yearlong seminar on seventeenth-century verse that made me wonder whether that was the last era in which religion and poetry could coexist so amicably. Faith seemed to be something I had lost, but I was heartened that John Donne and George Herbert, both Anglican priests, had produced some of the greatest poetry in English. Over the next year, as I steeped myself in the Romantics—Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats—and the French Symbolists, I came to believe that outgrowing a religious faith was something I needed to do in order to become a writer.
A child of the 1960s, I was attracted by the rebel stance of Shelley, Byron, and Baudelaire. To challenge authority, convention, and traditional religion: that was the poet’s calling. To disorder the senses and embark on Rimbaud’s drunken boat, that was the sacrifice the writer made in order to reveal the full potency of human experience. As an impressionable adolescent, seeking in poetry a refuge from shyness and social incapacity, I found it attractive to cultivate a disdain for the day-to-day, and for less enlightened people who were content with their mundane existence. The Romantics had been fighting a legitimate battle, what the poet Louise Bogan termed “a difficult and unpopular [one] against the eighteenth century’s cold logic and mechanical point of view.” She found it unfortunate that “so much of that early boldness and originality” was, however, “dissipated in excesses of various kinds,” so much so that by the mid-twentieth century, poets had become associated in the popular imagination with drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and suicide. It was discouraging for an aspiring young writer to follow a postwar generation of poets whose madness and self-destruction had been so public: Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman.
I fell into a trap that ensnares many novice poets, writing only when I was depressed and allowing the writing to lead me into an excitable, hyperactive state. This method can foster literary productivity for a while, but in the long run it is self-defeating. The poet Donald Hall has said that while “no one can induce bipolarity in order to make poems,” the question remains: “Does the practice of the art exacerbate a tendency? Surely for the artist the disorder is creative in its manic form—excitement, confidence, the rush of energy and invention.” Yet once that energy is expended, exhaustion sets in, and the time that flowed so quickly seems unbearably slow. A restless anxiety stirs within, and acedia can take hold.
Huxley’s “Accidie” made me reconsider two fallacies I had appropriated as truth: that despair is the state most conducive to writing, and that place and time are enemies of the creative spirit. My literary education in this type of desperation is neatly summarized in Franz Kafka’s short story “The Departure”: “‘Where is the master going?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘just out of here, just out of here. Out of here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my goal.’ ‘So you know your goal?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I’ve just told you. Out of here—that’s my goal.’” I had never considered acedia’s role in making what Huxley terms “the sense of universal futility, the feelings of boredom and despair, with the complementary desire to be ‘anywhere, anywhere out of the world,’ or at least out of the place in which one happens at the moment to be,” seem indispensable for creating poetry. Huxley’s cool assessment opened a door into my self-imposed prison, and let in a blast of fresh air.
I encountered Huxley’s essay at a critical time in my life. The cerebral young woman I had been was becoming someone much more grounded. I had entered my first long-term, committed, and stable relationship, and my husband and I had moved from New York City to my grandparents’ home in western South Dakota. Using recipes I found in my grandmother’s kitchen, I learned to bake bread. I worked in her garden and struggled to keep her perennials alive. I planted my own herbs and vegetables. The people I encountered every day were not other writers but farmers and ranchers, and something of their deep respect for God, the land, and the weather began to rub off on me.
In my thirties, though, unease nagged at me, as I attempted to reconcile what I had long felt to be, and in fact had been educated to see as, irreconcilable: my vocation as a writer, and a life of faith. I occasionally attended the Presbyterian church up the street, where my grandmother had been a member for more than sixty years and where I had gone to Sunday school during childhood summers. But I still considered it my grandmother’s church and not my own. My friendship with the pastors there led me to a Benedictine abbey some ninety miles north, and the monks’ liturgy of the hours deeply attracted me, although I could not have said why. After my first visit, I dreamed about the place every night for more than a week. One dream was set in a chemistry lab, where a monk I had met was conducting a class. He was no chemist, but a scholar of monasticism; my dream may have signified that he had something to teach me about human chemistry. At the time I found it curious that a monk might teach me anything.
The monastic men and women of the fourth century went into the desert for the specific purpose of combating their demons. When I moved to South Dakota with my husband, I had no such design. I wanted a quiet place to write and to nurture our relationship. But by planting myself firmly in a marriage, in my grandparents’ house in a part of the world considered by most to be a desert, I had done something untoward, and more radical than I knew. In a place with few distractions, where it is possible to go to monasteries for excitement, I had taken on the burden of time. When so many of my generation were “finding themselves” by renouncing commitments, I was attempting to make one work, staking my claim on the conviction that this newfound stability would not destroy my writing but allow it to flourish. Faith was another matter: I was burdened by religious doubts and felt keenly Anne Sexton’s lament “I love faith, but have none.” I thought that what was true of another poet I greatly admired, Louise Bogan, was also true of me. She had a deep-seated appreciation for liturgy but admitted that “the gift of faith has been denied me.” Like Bogan, I readily acknowledged religion as a human need having a great symbolic resonance, and even beauty. As she once commented, “The Elysian Fields are underground and the Christian heaven is overhead for two deep psychological reasons.” Still, I was bewildered by my desire to attend church and reclaim the faith of my ancestors as my own.
After that initial visit to the abbey, which I made not out of a burning spiritual desire but to hear a talk by the writer Carol Bly, I wrote to a monk I had met, unloading on him a host of questions about religion that were troubling me. He responded with a thoughtful letter, and with a book from the monastery library, On Being a Christian, by Hans Küng. My heart sank when I opened it and tried to read. It was a massive, abstract work of theology. Sighing, I put it back into the mailer, and noticed that the monk had written on the envelope, in a neat calligraphic hand, something to the effect of: “If this doesn’t work, try Flannery O’Connor’s letters.” It was an inspired suggestion: O’Connor was exactly what I needed, a woman whose vocation was to both Christian faith and writing. I was heartened by her assertion that “most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow, else there would be no need for their getting to her at all…. The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner, which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”
A devout Catholic, O’Connor could be stern about theological matters but charitable about the peccadilloes of others. In a letter written at Yaddo, a literary retreat, she says of an alcohol-sodden party: “I left before they began to break things.” She also noted, that “at such a place you have to expect them to sleep around…. This is not sin, but Experience.” I’d had more than enough “Experience” at Bennington and in New York City, and if I had moved on, improbably, by settling in one place, with one man, it remained to be seen whether our South Dakota home would be good for me, for us, and for our writing. It was unclear to me exactly where the Christian religion fit into all of this, and some friends cautioned me about the dangers of mixing religious faith with the poetic muse. One who had known both Anne Sexton and John Berryman was particularly concerned. As I studied these writers, reading poems, letters, journals, and interviews, I sensed that while their religious quest had produced brilliant work, the peace that faith can bring had eluded them. I noted with fear and foreboding that their desire for faith had itself become destructive, fueling the delusional high of the manic-depressive cycle. The poet Maxine Kumin, a friend of Sexton’s, writes that “an elderly, sympathetic priest, one of many priests [Sexton] encountered—accosted might be a better word—said a saving thing.” Sexton herself wrote of the encounter, recalling that after the priest had read her poems he told her, “‘Your typewriter is your altar.’ I said, ‘I can’t go to church. I can’t pray.’ He said, ‘Your poems are your prayers’…. As he left me he said…‘Come on back to the typewriter.’”
The priest’s good counsel, Kumin notes, did keep Sexton “alive at least a year beyond her time.” But the writing that sustained Sexton was also feeding her mania. In the poem that concludes her last book, The Awful Rowing Toward God, Sexton writes of playing poker with God in a crooked game. She finds the situation comical, and as God laughs, the poet joins in, saying, “I…love you so for your wild card, / that untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha / and lucky love.” In the end, the God whom Sexton found in her verse was not one who could save, and she killed herself soon after reading galleys for the book.
Much of John Berryman’s work also was written in a kind of fury. One friend of his told me of going to a Manhattan hotel to check on the poet, after he had phoned to say he was in town and wanted to see her, but had then not contacted her again. Finding him exhausted and raving from drink and lack of sleep, she called an ambulance. She also carefully gathered up manuscript pages for what would become his masterpiece, The Dream Songs, which Berryman had scattered about the room. Like Anne Sexton, he was drawn to both Judaism and Christianity. His last book of poems, Delusions, etc., was inspired by the psalms and the prayers of the canonical hours. The poems that conclude the book, most of them prayers, fluctuate wildly between ecstasy and despair. “The Facts and Issues” opens by saying of Christ, “I really believe / He’s here all over this room / in a motor hotel in Wallace Stevens’ town.” Counting his blessings, Berryman describes himself as “happy to be here / and to have been here, with such lovely ones / so infinitely better, but to me / even in their suffering infinitely kind.” The poem reaffirms the confident opening lines, concluding with an expression of faith in Christ as redeemer, who suffered and died “to make this filthy fact of particular, long-after, / far-away, five-foot-ten & moribund / human being happy. Well, he has! / I am so happy I could scream! / It’s enough! I can’t bear any more. / Let this be it. I’ve had it. I can’t wait.” In another late autobiographical work, the novel Recovery, Berryman’s protagonist Severance tries to say the Lord’s Prayer, only to be overcome by anguish: “‘Kingdom’; not the hid treasure or the pearl of great price but the lucky find! the risking all! to have one thing—Christ to Martha, his gentle and inexorable reproof defending Mary. Wise Mary, the better part. It: sobriety, and a decent end.”
Sadly, John Berryman could not find that “decent end” for himself; he committed suicide after an alcoholic relapse. In a foreword to Delusions, etc., his friend Saul Bellow wrote that “at last it must have seemed that he had used up all his resources. Faith against despair, love versus nihilism had been the themes of his struggles and his poems. What he needed for his art had been supplied by his own person, by his mind, his wit. He drew it out of his vital organs, out of his very skin. At last there was no more. Reinforcements failed to arrive. Forces were not joined.” The deck was stacked against Berryman, Sexton, and Plath, and not only because of tragic personal circumstances: the suicide, in Berryman’s childhood, of his father; Sexton’s manic depression; the deep-seated psychosis of Plath. Cultural factors also worked against them, notably the idea, as explored by Huxley in his essay, that boredom, hopelessness, and despair are essential for artistic inspiration. They were also contending with what the critic C.M. Bowra termed the “belief that the imagination was nothing less than God as it operates in the human soul,” a dangerous proposition indeed. In his survey of art history from the Byzantine era to the twentieth century, the theologian John Cobb observes that what had previously been considered holy, part of a transcendent world with the power to “transform, redeem, unify, and order” had “moved in a continuous process” from communal expressions of faith “into the inner being of artists themselves.” Many had come to assume that what the church called the Holy Spirit was no more, and no less, than artistic inspiration. This is a far more insidious proposition than what the Romantic poets had in mind, and for many artists, it has proved an insurmountable burden.
Poets are both revered and ignored in American culture. For many people poetry is that vaguely subversive stuff that you enjoy as a small child but detest by the time you’re in high school, having labored in vain to find its “hidden meanings.” Yet cultural expectations of the poet remain high, as exemplified in a passage from the biologist Lewis Thomas: “We have a wilderness of mystery to make our way through in the centuries to come, and we shall need…not science alone. For perceiving significance where significance is at hand, we shall need minds at work from all sorts of brains…mostly the brains of poets of course. The poets, on whose shoulders the future rests, might, late nights…begin to see some meanings that elude the rest of us” (emphasis mine). In an increasingly secular age, many people do trust writers rather than priests with their confessions. But the ancient and communal roles of shaman, seer, and storyteller are not an easy fit for writers in the contemporary world. Even if they are praised for what they offer through their work, they can feel isolated and lacking recourse to help.
If writers are often stymied by depression or addiction, many are also wary of psychoanalysis, psychotropics, and twelve-step programs as potentially detrimental to their art. Therapists find that some writers use treatment as an excuse to procrastinate, while others fear that the sessions will drain them of material they should be using in their work. Medications such as Prozac have been rejected outright by some writers, because, as one counselor puts it, the drugs tend to “eliminate their desire to write together with their regret over not doing so.”
Storytelling itself can be a redemptive act for the writer. In a sequence in Love & Fame, in poems with such titles as “The Hell Poem” and “Purgatory,” John Berryman writes of seeking salvation in a psychiatric ward, and finding it as he listens to other patients, many of whom are in even greater distress than he is. He applied his poetic genius in witnessing to their stories, and in “Death Ballad” addresses two alcoholic teenagers who have attempted suicide. The poem concludes: “Only, Jo & Tyson, Tyson & Jo, / take up, outside your blocked selves, some small thing / that is moving / & wants to keep on moving / & needs, therefore, Tyson, Jo, your loving.” As 1 Corinthians 13 puts it, faith may fail, but love does not. Berryman’s extravagant love—for literature, for wit, for his students—was extolled and admired by his many friends. But he was haunted by the struggle to love life itself. He made a poignant request of his wife, Eileen Simpson, after they had separated. One brief, chilling phrase captured not only his persistent fear that he, like his father, would be a suicide, but also his hope that God would receive him anyway. He reminded Simpson, “I would like if possible to be buried in consecrated ground.”
I used to tell friends in New York, “If I ever marry a poet, please shoot me.” Now that I had done it, those friends were thousands of miles away. The enforced intimacy my husband and I enjoyed in our small town meant that we had to be each other’s reader and critic, as well as best friend and confidant. It became clear to me that the ultimate question that Huxley’s “Accidie” had raised for me was not “Can a poet have faith?” but “Can a poet be well?” Let alone two poets, together? The evidence suggested that poets had not been well for some time. Gérard de Nerval may have brightened his Paris neighborhood by walking a lobster on a leash, but not when he hanged himself from a railing in the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne. His literary contemporaries were haunted by the thought that the poet had killed himself because his muse had failed him. Six years later Charles Baudelaire wrote in a letter: “I have fallen into an alarming debility and despair. I have felt myself attacked by a kind of illness à la Gérard, namely the fear of being unable to think any more, or to write a line.” Writing too much can also prove dangerous to a poet. Two poets idolized by many young women of my generation, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, had, shortly before their suicides, churned out four to six poems a day. In the posthumously published Winter Trees, Plath described her brain as “a gray wall…clawed and bloody,” and asked, “Is there no way out of the mind?” Sexton wrote her last book in less than three weeks, with, she noted, only “three days out. One for exhaustion and two for a mental hospital…. Writing in seizure, practically not stopping.”
What Plath and Sexton demonstrate is not that writers must nobly endure self-destructive compulsions, but that no artist can maintain such a high level of creative intensity. When one has been writing in the heights of what Sexton termed “a fugitive frenzy,” one needs a way to come down safely. Taking a walk may work, but other means can be more tempting: tranquilizers, marijuana, and above all, booze. Drunkenness may be, in Bertrand Russell’s memorable phrase, a “temporary suicide,” but alcohol can also be, William Styron reminds us, a “magical conduit to fantasy…and to the enhancement of the imagination.” Going up, coming down, and paying a steep price. A clergywoman who knew Sexton in her last days once said to me that “it wasn’t poetry that killed her, but alcohol.” This is probably true of John Berryman as well.
By the time my husband and I met, in 1973, we were practicing poets: that is, we had arranged our lives so that we had time to write. David had quit a job as an advertising executive after an epiphany in an Atlanta hotel: Either kill yourself, or go back to writing poems. He had moved in with his widowed father in Hartsdale, New York, taken a job in a Bronx printing factory, and was putting together a manuscript of verse in his free time. I was more sheltered, still in my first post-college job in arts administration. Two years before, I had won a young writers’ competition for a book of poems, but after the euphoria of publication wore off, I was at a loss. Although I still spent weekends writing, no matter how much I worked on them, my poems were dead on the page. I felt as if the creative spirit had abandoned me. More experienced writers assured me that this was a common occurrence, and not just with first books. Completing a manuscript and sending it to a publisher can engender great anxiety: The book is finished, and there may not be another. The book is finished, am I finished as well? The dour Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran hit the mark when he described a book as “a postponed suicide.”
David and I quickly discovered that our writing styles and habits were like night and day. He was far more conversant with the English literary tradition than I; at eleven, he had become enamored of Tennyson and the Brownings. An education in Greek and Latin had disciplined his memory, and he knew an alarming number of poems by heart. He once stunned a college audience by reciting Gerard Manley Hopkins’s lengthy “The Wreck of the Deutschland” from memory, and he often delighted student writers with enthusiastic renderings of “Jabberwocky” in English, French, and German. David preferred to write in blank verse, unrhymed but metered lines. I, by comparison, was a free-verse bum and sensation junkie; I loved reading and writing poetry for the way it made me feel. I sometimes wrote in syllabic verse, but this was due more to musical training than to deliberate effort. David said that I had “an ear for English,” and added, only half joking, that he never could have married anyone who did not.
Friends often asked us how two poets could live and work together without getting in each other’s way. David worked best late at night; I flourished in the early-morning hours. Our best conversations often took place at four am, when he was on his way to bed and I was waking up. He had always been a night person, and if I had to rouse him for a morning appointment he required at least two hours before he was fit to leave the house. He said that he’d never found an alarm clock loud enough to wake him. I seldom needed an alarm, and would rise full of energy and ready for the day. David’s grandparents had been born in Ireland; mine were of English descent, born in the United States. He had rum runners and freedom fighters in his background; my ancestors are more likely to have been chaplains and pastors. David would say that for all our cultural differences, we had a common origin. “Dwyer” derived from the Danish for “pirate,” he said, and “Norris” from “Norse,” those raiders and pillagers from the north. We did feel a bit like pirates after our move to South Dakota, as if we had gotten away with something. We had an inexpensive place to live in and my grandfather’s enormous V8 Oldsmobile to drive. Above all, by living off savings, part-time jobs, and the occasional grant, we were free to focus on writing.
David completed the poetry manuscript he’d been working on when we met, and in 1976 it won the Juniper Prize of the University of Massachusetts Press and was published as Ariana Olisvos: Her Last Works and Days. Ariana was an old woman David had been inventing for years, based on his grandmothers and a beloved great-aunt who had been a stockbroker. He cherished the way she had taken him under her wing, teaching him such useful and worldly things as how to open a bottle of champagne; he treasured the gold cufflinks he had inherited from her. David had fun with Ariana, giving her his childhood experience of being taught classical Greek by his father. David had meant to make Greek scholarship, along with writing poetry, his life’s work. Although a nervous breakdown at age nineteen had forced him to drop out of college, a few years later he was accepted into the graduate program in classical Greek at the University of Chicago. His thesis (which he never completed, as he became ill with a painful intestinal disease that was misdiagnosed for well over a year) was on Lesbian Aeolic, the language of Sappho.
David poured much of himself into Ariana. He gave her a Victorian childhood, in which some of his literary heroes—the Brownings, Swinburne, and Andrew Lang, editor of The Blue Fairy Book—made cameo appearances. And by having Ariana die of cancer, David could write about his own mother’s lingering death from metastasized breast cancer when he was in his twenties. He made Ariana tough-minded and brave—a side of himself that was sometimes eclipsed by his accommodating nature and conversational flights of fancy. David learned to change his mother’s mastectomy dressings and give her morphine injections so that he could accompany her on one last visit to her beloved Adirondacks.
In his author biography for the book, David said of himself that he “lives in Lemmon, South Dakota, where he works as a farmhand and a bartender.” He found both jobs inspiring. He wrote a poem in which the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé pays a visit to the Ranger Bar and tosses dice with the locals, and another based on the sounds an old tractor and baler made struggling up a hill. In the poem “Love and Poetry at Ground Zero,” he envisioned nuclear missiles in silos on the Great Plains (the nearest such silo was some sixty miles from us) as sleepless fairy-tale monsters who speak in deceptively inviting tones to passersby. After I wrote a poem about the plains at night, “The Middle of the World,” he wrote one called “The Middle of Nowhere,” about peeing by the side of a gravel road in the presence of the northern lights, “these swells of stripped / hydrogen atoms and disaffected / quarks that splash our electromagnetic / outer reefs, above Sioux County, / North Dakota.” Typically, David employed his poetry as a vehicle to bring together his interests in mathematics, science, and natural beauty: “I shiver and pee in the black / ditch, wave functions / collapsing around me like waves. / I know where I am: not far from home; / not far from our glamorous, ex- / travagant star; lost in uncountable, / unaccountable light.”
David and I had moved into a house that my grandparents had occupied for more than sixty years. Nearly everything we used was theirs: furniture, bedding, kitchen utensils, even the SweetHeart soap I remembered from childhood summers. We felt like temporary occupants, entrusted with the house and belongings until the true owners should appear. After wearing an old canvas jacket of my grandfather’s, David addressed the subject of the ghosts in the house in the poem “To Kathleen, with a Rabbit”: “I cannot say that I know / all their land is talking about, less / still what their talky old house has in mind. I’d just / as soon live with those voices, though, till / I can hear them.” The “talky old house” was also the inspiration for the new poems I was writing. It was full of family presence; my grandfather’s buffalo robe and my father’s navy greatcoat in the closet, my mother’s small wooden playhouse in the basement, along with a doll in a wicker carriage. In the prehistoric seabed of western South Dakota, I was no longer at sea.