Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Difference Between Gibberish and Outsider Poetry

I live in Downtown Rockford, near two homeless shelters and numerous agencies that are here to help the mentally ill, disabled, and disadvantaged, and living right in the center of that I see a steady stream of the disabled and mentally ill pass by all day long. I am one of them. 

When I was at Rockford College I had a professor who was an expert in Schizophrenia. It was her area of specialty, and she spent several years in clinical settings trying to understand it more. 

Where does mental illness and poetry intersect? I wonder this quite often when I see someone who likely has Schizophrenia wandering down the street engaging in an inner monologue that requires no other participants. I sometimes wonder how this state differs from that inner voice that sometimes seems to dictate to the poet what words to write next. Where do those words come from? Can they be turned on and off?

Are those people wandering down the street intoning some form of Outsider Poetry?

I don't know. There are, however, examples of schizophrenic poets like Larry Eigner. One of the founders of the Black Mountain School of poetry, Eigner wrote dozens of books, and was influential in the development of language poetry.

Outsider Poet with Schizophrenia Larry Eigner

But isn't all poetry language poetry?

Hard to say. Hard to say even where language comes from. Is it even a function of the human will, or is it something more automatic like breathing? Researchers probably study language as much as any other psychological phenomenon, but can they tell us definitively where it comes, what processes are involved, and what goes wrong in certain individuals that their ability is altered?


When I took psycholinguistics I learned that several areas in the brain work in concert to perform the phenomenon that we know as perceiving and creating language. I also know from clinical psychology that Schizophrenia is a very complicated disorder in terms of the upwards and downwards regulation of serotonin in a very small area of the brain. Even knowing how and where it is going wrong doesn't solve the problem because the brain's regulation of that neurotransmitter is so fine that any deviation destroys the process. 

Is the disjointed flow of ideas that a schizophrenic experiences similar in any way to the flow of ideas that an inspired poet experiences during the creative process? I often wonder this when I see my neighbors walking in my general orbit and seeming to be battling some demon inside their head. 

It is sad to have to concede that we may never know. This may be one of those problems humanity is never able to solve. It's possible these are people writing a complex poetry in their heads and we are the ones interrupting their symphony with our street noise and bustling and compulsion to get from here to there to do this or that.

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