The Person Principle: Writing Mental Illness

by David Ebenbach

The mad scientist. The batty neighbor. The homicidal maniac. From wild-eyed, mumbling homeless people to despondent teens dressed all in black and villains deranged by ambition.

There’s a long tradition of writing mental illness in fiction. Unfortunately, a lot of the time it’s been done poorly, relying on types and broad strokes rather than nuance and accuracy.

The stereotype.

The plot device.

The easy stock character.

When you write about mental illness, you are working in relationship to that hit-or-miss tradition, and you have to decide how you’re going to write.

What I would argue is that you really only need one principle: characters with mental illness are, in fact, characters. (Just as people with mental illness are, in fact, people.) Which means that they need to be written with the same care that all good characters are.

And what kinds of things do we care about when we’re trying to write good characters? Well, above all, we want them to be three-dimensional, because characters are supposed to be like real people, and real people are complicated and multidimensional. We don’t want our firefighter character, in other words, to only care about fighting fires; we don’t want a character from Kansas to care only about being from Kansas; and we shouldn’t want to write a character with mental illness in such a way that they are entirely reducible to that illness—a depressed person whose only attribute is sadness, say, or a person with a phobia who spends every scene being afraid.

But it’s bigger than the issue of dimensionality. When we write characters, we’re generally trying to make points of connection—people to whom our readers can relate in some way. That’s really why we make them dimensional. Even villains—the best villains often have some traits that we can understand, which makes them all the more fascinating. Points of connection are essential to fiction. But many times when people write characters with mental illness the result is a portrait not of commonality but of someone where oddness, difference, and otherness predominate. These portraits can get pretty offensive; they also make lousy characters.

I also think that this is the crux of why things go wrong when people try to get mental illness onto the page. Because it’s not just about the reader connecting; it’s about the writer connecting, too.

When you’re writing your way into a life that isn’t exactly the same as yours—whether the differences are slight or large—you’re faced with a decision: whether to empathize or not. Usually we embrace this opportunity, because there’s enormous pleasure in empathizing with people (even fictional ones). And you learn remarkable things, like how much you have in common with a wide range of human beings. It probably even makes you a better person, saying yes to that opportunity over and over again.

But what if the opportunity is threatening? What if you don’t want to find commonalities? What if you don’t want to blur (or even erase) the line between well and unwell, between you and a person with mental illness?

The fact is that there are commonalities whether you allow yourself to see them or not.

In my novel Miss Portland, the main character has bipolar disorder. (The book never comes out and says that, but it becomes clear soon enough.) Now, although I have wrestled a bit with depression, I do not have bipolar disorder. I’ve never experienced the kind of manic episode that my protagonist, Zoe, is experiencing throughout the book. But I chose Zoe as my protagonist because I have been very close to some people who have had bipolar disorder—close enough for their lives to inform and surround and shape my own. I wrote the book because I wanted to get closer still. And that meant treating Zoe like a character, which meant treating her like a person. A person with bipolar disorder, yes, but also a person with a great sense of humor and a very jumpy stomach and a nice brother and a person who is Jewish and from Philadelphia and who’s done a lot of different kinds of jobs in her life, including being a mindfulness coach. In other words: a person.

And of course the thing happened to me that always happens when I say yes to a character: I found myself in her and I found her in me. I found that the lines are in fact quite blurry, to the extent that there are any lines at all.

Characters—with or without mental illness—are not conveniences, not types to be slotted into places where the plot needs them. They are doorways into lives, into whole universes.

Some of those doorways might be frightening to you.

Open them anyway—all the way.

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2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach wrote this piece in honor of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month (September). He is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at


Failing at Great Length: What I’ve Learned from Writing Bad Novels

by David Ebenbach

I can’t figure out how long it took me to write my first novel. It might have been two years—or it might have been twenty-five.

I mean, in a certain sense it obviously took me two years; in 2013 I sat down to write a short story about a woman on an erratic personal quest for well-being, and that story quickly ballooned until I accepted that it was a novel-in-progress, and I worked and worked until I finished the final draft of Miss Portland in 2015. So that’s two years.

But then I wonder: maybe the only reason I was able to write Miss Portland and have it be any good is because of all the work that happened before 2013—work that consisted of (among other things) seven bad, failed novels, work that went all the way back to 1990. Maybe each one of those failures was part of the process of learning how to write a novel. Learning, in fact, what a novel even is.

I definitely did learn some things along the way. From my first two novels, written in college and full of teenagery emotional hand-wringing, I learned that my personal ennui is not enough to justify several hundred pages of fiction. From my next four attempts—one of which was a magic realist novel with flat characters and the other three of which were very strained allegories—I eventually gathered that some ideas are so difficult to pull off that the manuscript ends up reeking mainly of the author’s effort, and that, in fact, ideas are not novels. Not on their own. I also learned from one of those tries—my fifth—that you can’t expect a reader to wade through hundreds of pages of unwavering misery. (In that one, structured as a metaphor for the Biblical Exodus story—fun, right?—the book was confined to the week or so after the protagonist’s wife died, meaning that he was at peak grief on every page.)

But the big moment came around my seventh novel. I was determined to get my seventh novel right. It was going to be rooted in feeling, in something I cared about, but it wasn’t going to be an angsty spill. There was going to be a range of emotion. It was going to take on something big and important, but that big and important thing was going to be an experience, not an idea. There wasn’t going to be any allegory at all. I set out to tell the down-to-earth story of a single woman who was newly a mother, and scrambling to adjust.

That’s when plot ruined everything.

Really all I wanted to talk about was the enormity of becoming a parent—I had just become a parent myself—but because I knew I was writing a novel, I felt like I had to keep jacking up the stakes as the story progressed. The main character was freaking out a lot about all the changes in her life, which is natural enough. And so she started fantasizing about leaving the baby alone in her apartment to go get a drink, which is also natural enough as a fantasy—but then she did it. She left the child alone and got a drink. And that was only the first step; then she started going out again and again, for longer and longer periods. The novel had started out as a realistic portrayal of a new mom, and rapidly became the story of a really dangerously off-balance and neglectful parent.

A nice agent read the book and, in her email response, basically told me, I think you meant to write a short story, and you’ve blown it all totally out of proportion. And I instantly knew she was right. I had been worried about that same thing, deep down, myself.

Here’s the thing: if your material wants to be a short story, it needs to be a short story. You can’t turn a motorcycle into a freight train. So I broke that book into pieces and made it the basis for a short story collection.

In sum: I had spent twenty-three years learning what doesn’t make a novel. Honestly, they were tough lessons, full of rejections and disappointment, and I basically gave up on trying to write novels for about five years after that seventh try.

Like I said, when I started to write the thing that ultimately became my novel Miss Portland, I thought I was setting out to write a short story. Just something simple about a woman upending her life in a desperate grab to fix everything. I had her step off a bus in Portland, Maine, having just given up her whole life in Philly in the hopes of starting fresh, and I imagined there’d be a few scenes—she had this dicey guy she was going to see up there—and she’d get back on the bus and head back home. But it didn’t go like that. Miss Portland the novel snuck up on me. This woman’s journey was bigger and more involved than I had expected. And she wasn’t me, spewing angst. And she wasn’t an idea. And though her journey was full of challenges, external and internal, Zoe had a resilience and earnestness and sense of humor that provided a range of emotional experience to put on the page.

And so I wrote a novel—a real one this time.

It took eight tries, but I did it. In either two or twenty-five years.

And here’s the next question: does this mean I’m all set now? Lessons learned and ready to write my next novel?

I’m not sure. Part of me thinks that things are never that easy. Maybe now I’m going to have to learn a whole new set of lessons. Maybe I’ll have to write seven new failed novels before I can write my second not-failed one. Or maybe not. I don’t know. I only know one thing, really:

I’m going to do whatever I have to do in order to learn to write whatever I need to write.

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2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of seven books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at

Getting a Book Wrong by Getting it Right

by David Ebenbach

One of the most surprising things about writing is that you can set out to do a particular thing, and completely succeed at doing that thing, and, as a result, produce something that is not good.

I learned this lesson in the process of developing my new short story collection, which originated in an idea. Probably this was not a great way to begin, but it’s how I began. I noticed that I had written a few short stories that were in the first person and starred a narrator who was trying to convince the listener/reader of something. A ha! I thought. A pattern! And so I decided that I was going to write an entire book of stories like that.

Side note: before my first collection of short stories, Between Camelots, was published, I would work on one individual story at a time and would only think about that particular story. I didn’t think about how that story might fit in with other stories, how it could be part of some emerging theme or focus, how it might fit into something bigger. I didn’t think in terms of books. Ever since Between Camelots came out, though, it’s been hard to avoid thinking about books, because books are fun and rewarding. Whenever I write a story now, I have this awful tendency to look right past it, wondering if it could be part of a collection. It’s a bad habit that I don’t know how to break.

Anyway, that habit was already in place when I decided (based on those several relevant stories I’d already written) that I was going to write a collection of first-person stories with narrators attempting to persuade. In a sense they would all be dramatic monologues. Well, I set out to write those stories, and over a couple of years I did write them. I got the job done. When I put them all together and slapped a title on the collection—Missionaries—I shared the manuscript with some very smart writer-friends, and they agreed: yes, I had indeed put together a book of first-person narrators pleading their cases.

The problem was that, as these very smart writer-friends told me, it was not a good book.

These very smart writer-friends told me that my attempt to pursue a focus had produced uneven stories; some were good, but others were clearly there just because I needed more of that type. I had lowered my standards in order to make sure my goals were met. Even worse, even if all the stories had been good, apparently it was pretty tedious, reading one narrator after the next all engaged with the reader in the same kind of way. In other words, I had succeeded in putting together a certain kind of book, but that kind of book was not going to work for a reader. Doing what you mean to do is not inherently a good thing; it’s only a good thing if what you mean to do is worth doing.

A somewhat euphemized version of a piece of advice I regularly give my students: You can smear mud all over a plate—on purpose, intentionally—but your intentions don’t make it dinner.

And so I retreated to my Writing Cave and pondered. Instead of pursuing the Missionaries idea further, I decided to let myself be guided by the power of the stories. I dumped the ones that were so-so and hung onto the ones that were solid. I also grabbed some other solid stories I’d written along the way, ones that I’d written even though they didn’t fit into the collection idea (sometimes I’m still a little irrepressible, even with my bad Could this be a book? habit), and I just put them all together, side-by-side, to see whether they might play nicely with one another. (That’s how I assembled my first book, after all.)

And it turned out that they did play nicely with one another. And in fact there was even a theme there—people trying to figure out how to fit into the social world—but the theme was not relentless, and it emerged organically instead of being an artificial force producing stories like an assembly line, and there were many different kinds of voices, and third-person stories (and even second-person stories!) to go with the first-person stories. There was variety. This was a collection rather than an idea stuck on repeat. When my very smart writer-friends read the new version, now called The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories (and now published, I’m proud to say), they said it was good. They said that this was a plate of something that could reasonably be called dinner.

When it comes to assembling short story collections, intentions are not sacred. Intentions probably aren’t even necessary. Certainly they matter a lot less than the stories themselves.

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David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the short story collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

Big Five: Our Top Blog Posts in 2016

Happy New Year! As we look back on 2016, we thought we’d revisit the posts on the blog that have drawn the most readers. Check them out if you haven’t read them yet!

#5: Designing Time: The Idea of Plot in the Lyric Essay
by Tyler Mills

Tyler Mills Headshot
“The lyric essay must transform our ‘erratic assemblage,’ moving them into meaning like the night sky that turns toward morning. The constellations change positions, and we pick out their patterns from the chaos of darkness. The crisis that spins everything toward the main thing is realization. Realization is what the mind does with these observations. Realization is what the mind does with the world. Realization is the heart of the lyric essay—what makes it move, what makes all of its light-riddled parts hold together.”


#4: Stanislavski in the Ghetto
by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Maurice Carlos Ruffin Author Photo BW
“Someone much smarter than me once said that the act of writing while black is a political act. But the idea is broader than race. I believe the principle is true of all groups who don’t have access to the full panoply of human rights.”


#3: The Ultimate and Decisive “Is Poetry Dead” Article!
by David Ebenbach

David Ebenbach
“The ‘Is Poetry Dead?’ articles are coming. Often they show up in National Poetry Month (April), but they can appear at any time. Spring or Fall, day or night. Maybe you’re in the middle of writing poetry, or reading it, and you look away from the poem—only for a second, but still—and there, on social media, out from behind a curtain or something, jumps the article, screaming: IS POETRY DEAD IT’S TOTALLY DEAD ISN’T IT DON’T LIE IT’S DEAD I TELL YOU! DEAD! DEAD?


#2: Living the Process of Dying
by Kelly Cherry

“Writers who continue to write in old age—and as we live longer there are more and more such writers—often seek to write about death, which is not a pretty subject. Not a poetic subject. Except that it is a poetic subject by virtue of the poets writing about it. In other centuries many poets touched on the subject of death—we think particularly of Keats—but in our current century medicine stretches out the dying process, and poets are spending more of their lives living the process of dying. Dying is incremental, as a friend once pointed out to me when I exclaimed that I was falling apart piece by piece. ‘You don’t get it,’ he said. ‘That’s how we die. Piece by piece.’ Well, that woke me up.”


and…our most-read post of the year:

#1: Is Poetry True or False?
by Ben Purkert

“I now teach my own creative writing course spanning three genres: non-fiction, fiction and poetry. Invariably, poetry proves the hardest to define; it plays by a different set of rules, while seemingly breaking all of them. But if the formal conventions of poems can be tough to untangle, just as challenging is poetry’s relationship to lived experience. Non-fiction and fiction announce themselves on a basic level: the first is what happened; the second is what didn’t. So where does poetry stand, my students ask. Is it true or false?

Thanks, everyone, for a year of conversation, and we’ll see you in 2017!

Use Your Words: The Political Power of Literature

by David Ebenbach

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”
-George Orwell

It may be nonsense in our time, too.

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell reminded us that lots of good writing springs from a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” He continues: “No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

And writing has pushed the world. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such a powerful and mobilizing call against slavery that Abraham Lincoln was said to have called Stowe (in a comment that is, strangely, both dismissive and admiring at once) “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, an outcry against inequality and injustice, famously forced reforms to the food production industry that had been so harmful to its workers and consumers. In Stalinist Soviet Union, poets were persecuted because they were feared for their ability to nurture and inspire popular resistance; the poet Pablo Neruda was exiled from Chile for the same reason. Chinua Achebe changed the way the world looked at Western imperialism; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale galvanized a generation of feminists to take on misogynistic political forces; Orwell himself has left us properly wary of doublespeak and unchecked governmental control. The history of the written word is a history of impact.

Of course, in the 21st century, the picture may be more complicated. The potential reading world is inundated with captivating alternatives to words on paper: TV, movies, social media, streaming video, and all the other usual suspects. It’s probably harder to reach people with our writing. And yet the world still needs pushing—desperately. How can we continue to have influence?

Well, one thing we can think about is indirect influence. Many writers are also teachers, or participate in Writers in the Schools programs, all of which puts us in contact with emerging generations of people—people who will go on to shape the world. As it turns out, getting books into young hands is a powerful thing. For starters, literature has repeatedly been shown to increase readers’ empathy—something we need a lot more of in our time.

Or there’s the influence that comes from the power of literary community. Poets Against the War didn’t bring the second Iraq war to a screeching halt, but it ultimately produced Split This Rock, an organization that, year after year, raises up “poems of provocation and witness” and that has, through festivals, conferences, and youth programs, rallied many people to do some much-needed pushing themselves. Literature produces countless communities, big and small, that inspire and hone and launch voices into the public sphere.

But let’s not discount direct influence, either. Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen has shaped a national conversation on the ways racism can permeate our everyday social interactions; Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex has helped to complicate the public understanding of gender; novels like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Mahbod Seraji’s Rooftops of Tehran have brought a wide range of history into global view. And sometimes our work affects powerful people indeed; President Obama, for one, has cited novels like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook as a major source of influence in his life. Even if we don’t quite reach the president, there are a lot of decision-makers in our world, nearly countless people we might find with our work. And each person we affect has the ability to affect others.

Besides, of course we can jump off the page if we need to—screenplays that get turned into movies reach a lot of people, good blog posts go viral, and after Jennifer Egan released her story “Black Box” in 2012 as a series of tweets, social media became fair game for the rest of us.

The point is that we probably still feel the desire to push the world—many of us more than ever in these troubled times—and that we have the leverage to do it. One thing we have learned from this election is that words still move people; they can incite fear and resentment—we’ve heard plenty of those kinds of words, lately—or they can inspire justice and empathy. We need a lot more of the latter.

If you’re a writer, you have gifts and skills that not everyone has. The world needs those gifts.

Put them to use.

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David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

Books as Bibles

by David Ebenbach

Don’t mess with Moby Dick. And I’m not talking about the whale, though you should probably leave the whale alone, too—I’m saying don’t mess with the book.

A while back I posted a piece on Medium called “Call Me Irritable: A Chapter Outline of Moby Dick in the Form of an Increasingly Frustrating Conversation with a Guy Named Ishmael.” I had just finished reading Moby Dick for the first time (For shame! How could I have waited for so long?) and I had not enjoyed the experience. So I wrote the fictional conversation as a way of poking fun at what struck me as a novel whose scattered great parts got lost in a book that was in general bloated, shapeless, and dull.

Some people liked the fun-poking; I’m not the only person in the history of the world to not enjoy Moby Dick. But some other folks had advice for me. They told me to read the book more slowly, or to apply different standards to the book, or to try to appreciate the little things instead of the big picture. In one way or another, these folks told me that I was reading the book wrong, or that my dislike of the book just pointed to my own deficiencies.

This confirmed my perception that Moby Dick is one of those special books that has become so firmly entrenched as a literary classic that it has become something more than a novel—it has become the literary equivalent of the Bible.

What do I mean by that? I mean this: when a piece of literature becomes a Bible, it is no longer open to question, or at least to certain questions. We can ask, “Hey—why is this so amazing?” and “What did Melville mean with this symbol?” and “How can I get more out of this?” We can ask questions intended to help us understand and appreciate the book more thoroughly. But we can’t ask questions like, “Um, isn’t this book a complete mess, with truly striking, beautiful, exciting stuff broken up by many incredibly boring chapters full of protracted (and often misinformed) lectures about whales and whaling equipment and whaling technique?” We can’t ask questions, in other words, that question the goodness or rightness of the text.

Because here’s the thing about a Bible, understood traditionally: when you have a problem with a Bible, there is no possibility that the Bible is wrong—this is supposed to be divine stuff, after all. There is only the possibility that you are wrong, and you can only hope to work harder in order to better grasp the wisdom of the Bible.

For the record, I don’t think that the Bible should be read this way, either, but that’s a subject for another essay. More to the point, classics of literature may be wonderful, but not one of them was written by a god, and it seems to me, as a reader, that every one of them should ultimately be open to all possible questions that enter your mind. These include: “Is this working?” “Should some of this be cut/expanded?” and “How might this be improved?”

And here’s another question that ought to be allowed: “Should I stop reading?”

I want to get something out of a book, but if it just isn’t happening, there are approximately 78 quadrillion other books out there that might prove more moving and useful. If, after putting in some real effort, my dissatisfaction builds up too much, I try to figure out what’s not working for me (so that I can be sure not to reproduce the problem in my own work), and then I do a potentially sacrilegious thing: I put the book down. I put it down and move on. And surely that happens sometimes with my own books—people put them down and walk away. That’s the reader’s prerogative.

Of course, it’s a delicate balance. When I start reading a book—not just a “classic” but any book—I do enter it somewhat Biblically, in the sense that my mind is open and my stance is humble. I’m ready for it to be good, to teach me something. And if I have early buzzings of uncertainty, as long as they’re not too loud, I try to stay in there. I want the book to succeed. I want to get something out of it. After all, being a writer in part means being very inclined to get things out of books. If lots of other people have liked the book—if it is considered a classic, for example—I work even harder to keep my mind open. If trustworthy friends have recommended the book, I work harder still. I definitely don’t want to miss an opportunity to be wowed by a piece of writing, so I give it every chance I can.

And don’t we want people to approach our own work that way? I think each writer produces work that, if it’s any good, makes fresh demands of the reader—by messing with the rules of point of view, say, or using voice in a new way, or taking an idiosyncratic angle on structure or pacing or characterization or whatnot—and we don’t want people to say, “This isn’t what I’m used to, so it’s bad.” Naturally we each hope that readers will be open to the possibility of meeting the work’s demands. And we believe that they’ll be rewarded for hanging in there with an open mind.

If I’m honest, I think that’s part of what bothers me about Moby Dick: envy. Not envy of the writing, but envy of how it’s received. It’s a “classic,” so people automatically come at it with a Biblical mind-set. Meanwhile, they probably look at contemporary writing (e.g., mine) with a more critical eye. (After all, Melville was pretty much dismissed in his own lifetime.) My ideal is something more equitable, with every piece of writing getting the benefit of the doubt provisionally, at first. That’s the hope I have as a writer, and it’s the ideal I shoot for as a reader: each text approached with the question Is this maybe kind of Biblical? If the answer turns out to be yes, great. If the answer is no, that’s fine, too. You’re allowed to put the book down. Let someone else call that guy Ishmael.

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David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.


The Ultimate and Decisive “Is Poetry Dead?” Article!

by David Ebenbach

The “Is Poetry Dead?” articles are coming. Often they show up in National Poetry Month (April), but they can appear at any time. Spring or Fall, day or night. Maybe you’re in the middle of writing poetry, or reading it, and you look away from the poem—only for a second, but still—and there, on social media, out from behind a curtain or something, jumps the article, screaming: IS POETRY DEAD IT’S TOTALLY DEAD ISN’T IT DON’T LIE IT’S DEAD I TELL YOU! DEAD! DEAD?

It’s almost cute—each time it’s like the article thinks it’s the very first one to ever think of the idea.

Except that the argument definitely gets old. You hear the same things again and again: declining readership, only poets read poetry, it’s not in the newspapers, the Kardashians don’t keep up with it, et cetera. And then poets get defensive and flood the message boards and try not to use the word philistines or, also, assholes. (I once used up a whole, perfectly good day live-tweeting sarcastic rejoinders at Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri in the wake of her article titled, well, “Is Poetry Dead?”)

And we do this over and over.

Well, it’s time to resolve this debate, once and for all, so that nobody ever needs to write an Is Poetry Dead article ever again.

How? With science.

(Because, in America, science resolves all debates.)

You see, there is a biological definition of life. (This exists so that, when someone goes to create a Frankenstein’s monster, they can’t just start yelling “It’s Alive!” without first checking a few things.) According to scientists (i.e., Wikipedia), all living things have to meet seven criteria: they have to respond to the environment and show metabolism, reproduction, organization, homeostasis, growth, and adaptation. And so, ipso facto, cogito ergo sum, if poetry meets these criteria, it’s alive, and we can stop asking the question.

Pretty good idea, right? I know.

So? Is poetry alive?

Let’s start with the easy stuff: poetry, first of all, does Respond to the Environment. I’ve been to a lot of open mic readings in my life, and I can tell you: whenever there’s a tragedy in the news, or something wonderful happens, whether in the world or in an individual life, people write poems. Whole poetry organizations come about this way, like Split this Rock, which developed out of the group Poets Against the War, which happened because of the first Iraq War. Poetry is an Environment-Responding superstar: check.

And why do poems respond? Well, for lots of reasons. One reason is that this helps the poet to process the happening, the experience. Looking at it close up, through the refracting lens of artful language, allows the poet to turn the thing into another thing. Confusion can become clarity, or the beginnings of it; certainties can become good questions; pain can become beauty and vice versa; helplessness can become a handhold, a grip. Poetry transforms (and in its presence we can be transformed). In other words, Metabolism: also check.

Poetry, meanwhile, definitely Reproduces. How do you make poetry? Well, I don’t know about you, but what I do (and what a lot of my friends do) is begin by reading a bunch of poetry written by other people. Eventually, after a lot of friendly mingling with this other poetry, I get a tingly poetry feeling in me, and a poem of my own starts to form. Then I put the other folks’ poetry down and get to writing. This really works; poetry makes poetry. Reproduction: hell, yes.

Organization may be a tougher call, especially given that some poetry readings start an hour and a half late because the poet who’s supposed to read in fact caught the wrong bus. But that’s not what biology means when biology talks about Organization. What biology means is a life form is an orderly form, that there’s a hierarchical structure there. Atoms make up molecules make up organelles make up cells, etc. And poems are like that, of course, with phonemes and words and sentences and stanzas, though it all gets complicated by lines, which may be smaller or larger than sentences, or even words, might be the same size as stanzas or smaller. But the bigger point is that a poem has form. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles have obvious form, but even free-verse follows a logic—it just invents its own internal logic with each new poem.* If a poem is any good—and lots of them are—it’s got Organization. So, check.

Related to this is Homeostasis, which is about internal balance, or what Barbara Herrnstein Smith (who is kind of a genius and deserves a specific shout-out) would call stability. A living thing is regulated so that everything stays in tune with everything else and nothing goes off the rails. Bad poems probably don’t have this—the end of the poem doesn’t bring closure to the beginning, the image set shifts violently for no reason, the diction of the poet vacillates wildly—and those poems are, I guess, dead. Or at least in critical condition. But good poems? Good poems are whole, and each part secretly knows about each other part and stays in balance with it. The regulator is the poet, who repeats a sound or a word in order to keep the current line in touch with other lines, who only lets the poem say what it’s been set up to be able to say—or who changes the set up so that it matches what gets said—and who goes back through an early draft to make sure the poem coheres in its voice, in its structure, in its energy. So, yeah: Homeostasis.

On, then, to Growth. According to the scientists (i.e., Wikipedia again), “a growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.” This is a complicated concept in the sense that I don’t totally know what it means. But, if we look at the poetry analogy, a poem gets to maturity (i.e., final draft firm) not just by piling words on, but through the development of all its constituent elements. The voice of the poem clarifies in the beginning, middle, and end. An imagery set solidifies to hold the poem together, informing the poem throughout. Growth is not always just about getting bigger; tadpoles lose their gills as part of their maturation, and there are some fish that show their age through the location of their eyes—they start out with eyes on both sides of their head and end up with both on the same side (which is completely crazy). With poems, the final version is certainly not always actually bigger than the first version—but there’s ultimately a coherent whole that sees not more words but more appropriate words, in that they work more appropriately together to form a grander effect. That is, poems Grow.

Maybe most important for our exploration is the requirement of Adaptation; for something to be alive, it has to adapt to its environment. In some sense, poetry obviously does this. The sonnet, born as a form in Italy, changed when it met the English language. Verse in wild-and-woolly America became decidedly freer; it’s also become more post-modern in an era when people have become increasingly suspicious of truth-claims. Iambic pentameter, stage plays written in verse, slam poetry, perhaps even song lyrics—these have all been adaptations to new environments. And it’s this characteristic that pushes us to ask not, “Is Poetry Dead?” but “Where and how can poetry live?” While we check the Adaptation box, let’s definitely keep asking this second question.

The bottom line: as you can see, technically speaking, poetry is as alive as a kangaroo or a bacterium or the kind of fish that is actually (I kid you not) called a Sarcastic Fringehead. We have checked the vital stats, and the stats are vital. There is officially no need to further rehash the Dead Poetry question; if you question the aliveness of poetry, you basically hate science.

Check, in other words, and mate.

One last and more earnest thought: If you have to keep asking if something is dead, it probably isn’t. So ask away, I guess. Doing so doesn’t kill anybody or anything, and least of all poetry.

*Take, for example, William Carlos’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” often held up as a paragon of free verse. But how free is it? Four stanzas, and in each stanza there are two lines. In the first and last stanzas the first line is three words, four syllables total, and the second line is one word of two syllables. In the middle two stanzas the first line is three syllables, consisting of two words and part of a third, and the second line is the rest of that word, two syllables long. That’s some serious order.

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2014 Hairston 08David Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of five books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.