Attempting Poetry: Robin Williams, Conor Oberst, and Sliced Meat

When I was younger (I’ve just gotten to that number – a quarter century – where I’ve begun fake-lying about my age) than I am now (twenty-three, twenty-four…) I thought that everything in my life needed to be somehow poetic – and my friends and I were constantly conscious of moments that seemed or felt “poetic” to our teenage sensibilities. Hiding in the bathroom stall at school (no CD players allowed, yo), listening to Bright Eyes? Poetic. Drinking black coffee at 9pm in Seattle with the lazy canal moving slowly westward? Poetic. Waking up alone in a hotel room, with your clothes folded neatly on a chair – stacked in order, bottom to top, with your bangles and earrings over your socks and underwear? Tragic, but also, poetic. 

Smoking cloves on the curb outside 7-11 was poetic and being a soul-eaten, if somewhat failed novelist was poetic, and certainly that deep sadness we artists are born into, with our old souls Van Gogh, hard of hearing with one ear, infinitely poetic.

So when I started working, one summer between college classes, at the Safeway Deli in my hometown, all black-pants and white work-shirt, wearing my brother’s pink tie from prom and with a hat with that half-infinity curved S, and throwing eight jumbo garbage bags into some gaping dumpster as chasmic as the teethed abyss Boba Fett was consigned to in Episode VI, all I could think of, sweating through my clothes, was, 1) Why can’t these assholes slice their own damn meat, and 2) This is so. Not. Poetic.

But what is poetic? And what consists of that definition? Bright Eyes was poetic, sure enough, but Bright Eyes was a brooding boy-genius whose song lyrics vilified and glamorized mental illness in equal parts. Lyrics, as those found in Something Vague, explained the gutterless sadness, the infinite fear that those who struggle with depression and addiction feel. I’m posting them fully here, because they encapsulate the feeling of depression for me, and the feeling of suicide and haplessness, and the hanging sensation of being, as Conor Oberst explains, “Like a star/fucking glow in the dark.”

Now and again it seems worse than it is,
But mostly the view is accurate.
You see your breath in the air as you’ll climb up the stairs
To that coffin you call your apartment.
And you sink in your chair, brush the snow from your hair
And drink the cold away.
And you’re not really sure what you’re doing this for
But you need something to fill up the days.
A few more hours.

There’s a dream in my brain that just won’t go away.
It’s been stuck there since it came a few nights ago
And I’m standing on a bridge in the town where I lived
As a kid with my mom and my brothers.
And then the bridge disappears and I’m standing on air
With nothing holding me.
And I hang like a star, fucking glow in the dark,
For all those starving eyes to see,
Like the ones we’ve wished on.

But now I’m confused. Is this death really you?
And do these dreams have any meaning?
No. No, I think it’s more like a ghost that’s been following us both.
Something vague that we’re not seeing,
Something more like a feeling.

If you haven’t heard “Something Vague,” check it out here

I guess for me, as a kid, I needed Bright Eyes, and I needed Conor to sing these brooding songs that packaged every manic-depressive feeling I had as an angsty teenager, the ones I thought would go away with age, with counseling, with achievements. I guess it did go away, but then, so did the desire for forever-poetic-living. It occurs to me that mental illness isn’t glamorous. It isn’t sexy. It isn’t desirable. When I was young, I needed labels and definitions to explain the endless soul-ache that I felt – the longing that was as grey as it was electric. Now, I’ve learned how to channel it – to combine medications with healthy living with travel and with spirituality – but it doesn’t stop the sudden mania or the plunging depression that still manifests with physical symptoms in my body. 

Some of my friends (who am I kidding, most of my friends) are artists, and they’ve repeated the artist mantra: “I think I need this sadness to (sing, paint, draw, sketch, compose, write, etc.).” But I’m taking a step away from that – I don’t need my depression to write, to create, to achieve. In fact, it’s a hinderance, and something I’m constantly trying to keep under – if it can be called thus – control. 

Robin Williams was a cultural icon and household name, a man who was so much more than an actor and comedian to so many of us, a man who made us laugh and who touched us on an intrinsically human level, whose soul was truly kind. And his sadness was a heartache he, like so many great artists, may have been borth with. The loss of him is beyond tragic for those of us who grew up with him, who leaned on him, who loved him.

I know it’s dangerous to try to assign meaning to someone’s death. It can undercut the suffering of  the family, and it can seem disrespectful to them, but if I can see the way that Mr. Williams’s death is being honored in public forums like Facebook and Tumblr, then surely others see it, too: Robin Williams’s death has created urgency surrounding the destigmatization of mental health issues, and, with the added publicity to the suicide hotline, and other mental health resources, individuals suffering from depression and other mental health issues are coming out of the mental illness closet. Additionally, advocates are surfacing on news networks, personal and public blogs, and across social networking, insisting that mental health issues are health issues – that, as one blogger put it, those who say, “It’s all in your head,” forget the fact that it’s in your head.

I believe that we need to stop pretending that sadness is poetic. I wonder if Van Gogh had had access to medical care, if his story would have ended differently. What about Ernest Hemingway, or Sylvia Plath? It’s too late to go back, but it’s not too late to change the way we see the future. And I think we have to try – for him. For Robin Williams.

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