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Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment, and the Creative Process

Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment, and the Creative Process

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Poetry by Dr Berlin
Autumn Equinox

A Peaceable Kingdom

Olivia's Overlook

Smarmy Psychiatrist Villanelle, 1967

“Do poets need to be mentally ill to produce great work? Is creativity heightened by treatment, or does treatment reduce emotional pain to the extent that the poet no longer has anything to say?”

These questions are at the center of editor and poet Richard M. Berlin’s new book, Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment, and the Creative Process. Through a series of 16 essays, a diverse group of poets explore their own mental illnesses and the effects of psychiatric care on their creativity.

At its heart, this is a book about a concept important to poets and psychiatrists alike—process. How the book came to be is itself an interesting process. Dr Berlin, a psychiatrist on the staff of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and also a prolific poet, used 3 means to seek out poets who had been treated for mental illness. The first 2 were conventional: he placed advertisements in Poets and Writers and, as the process progressed, he was solicited by poets who heard about the project via word of mouth. More intriguing was Dr Berlin’s third method for seeking essayists. He wrote blindly to poets he admired but whose psychiatric history or use of psychiatric treatment was unknown.

What emerged from this search was a group of poets willing to openly explore their psychiatric care. Each poet finds a way to intermingle the evolution of his or her treatment with the evolution of his writing. Although the style and tone of the essays vary, 2 themes surface.

The first, more explicit theme relates to the myth of madness as a necessity for great art. The struggles of the impaired mind and troubled soul are not what make quality poetry. It is instead hard work guided by clarity and competence. In her essay “My Name Is Not Alice,” the poet Ren Powell discusses her bipolar disorder. “When I slide toward the edges of my continuum, it’s the routine skill that suffers. I don’t think the imaginative ideas without craftsmanship are artistic.”

Whether from pharmacology or psychotherapy, the essayists in Poets on Prozac often find new precision through treatment. Poet Jack Coulehan, himself a physician, writes of the effect of anxiety on his creativity: “I had written very little poetry in . . . 6 months, even though I had conscientiously plodded away at it.” Once he began to take paroxetine, he writes, “I didn’t experience myself as different . . . I started to speak more strongly, but the voice had always been there.”

Despite this largely unanimous appreciation of treatment in the book, a second, more subtle theme arises. Although the existence of illness may not define the poets, healing from illness is entwined with their paths as artists. In her essay “The Ghosts of Animals,” poet Vanessa Haley writes, “Psychotherapy and poetry are still the vehicles I use to help me sort through the rough terrain of inevitable losses.” Creation and healing are more explicitly connected for Gwyneth Lewis: “I began to realize, for me, depression is not a condition separate from the creative cycle but is a part of it. It’s like the fuse in a house with suspect wiring: it’s the weakest part of the system that ensures the safety of the whole.”

Would these poets trade perfect mental health for their art? The great revelation of Poets on Prozac is that this question need not be answered. Perfect health of any kind is an illusion. Through the words of poets, this book celebrates the idea that health is not an end point—and that healing is a lifelong process.

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