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Lisa SpaarSleepless -- but not lost for words

Anthology gathers poems about insomnia through the age

By Robert Brickhouse

It's a rare person who hasn't experienced at least one bad bout of sleeplessness. By some estimates, one in three people suffer from chronic sleep disorders. But take heart: we are in good company. Since ancient times, poets around the world have been writing about the torments of insomnia and often have found visionary inspiration in it.

Now a newly published anthology, edited by a poet and writing teacher at U.Va., brings together dozens of such poems, not only from great writers of the Western literary heritage but from cultures throughout the world, that reveal insomnia's extraordinary creative legacy through the centuries.

In Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems, published by Columbia University Press, editor Lisa Russ Spaar presents an array of sleepless voices ranging from the ancient Greek Sappho to Job in the Bible, to Shakespeare to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, to contemporary poets Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Kenyon and Charles Simic.

Documenting insomnia's universality, the anthology also includes memorable poems from Russia, Italy, India, China, Sweden, France, Vietnam and Romania, as well as from the Inuit, Tamil and Yiddish cultures. In the course of her research to create the volume, Spaar discovered not only the widespread nature of insomnia but also, she says, that "something about the insomniacal experience is directly related to why poets make poems. As Whitman points out, 'night, sleep, death and the stars' are the themes a poet's soul loves best," Spaar, acquainted with insomnia herself, began to notice several years ago that there were many vivid poems about sleeplessness, such as the classic Robert Frost poem that gives her anthology its title.

She scanned her own bookshelves, made a list and quickly came up with 40 to 50 more, with such typical themes for the sleepless as solitude, personal crisis, worry, grief, passion, betrayal and guilt. As she mentioned her growing collection to friends and fellow poets, other poems

"It's a prevalent condition and it's affected lots of different writers over the years,˛ says Spaar, who is administrator of U.Va.'s creative writing program in the English department and whose own poetry collections include Blind Boy on Skates and the forthcoming Glass Town.

A main theme of insomnia, both for poets and everyone else, is often an awareness, conscious or unconscious, of death, Spaar discovered.

"There's something about the 'big sleep' of death that makes the Ślittle sleep' of night strongly affect people," she says, and insomnia can be for some an attempt to ward off death, to remain conscious. For example, she cites the condemned prisoner in Federico Garcia Lorca's "Ballad of One Doomed to Die," who "knows that to close his eyes, even in sleep, is to surrender to his inevitable, approaching fate." And, she points out, many mystics, monastics and religious traditions advocate wakefulness.

One of the other chief themes of insomnia poems is the idea that sleeplessness can be a source of visionary, erotic or artistic experience, she says. Poets may express a sense that sleep deprivation "can remove the veils between sleep and waking, dream and reality, and invite spiritual, artistic and erotic enlightenment, even redemption," Spaar writes in the introduction to Acquainted with the Night. "Perhaps this notion of an energizing, creative insomnia helps to account for the fact that a significant number of our greatest writers and thinkers were also chronic insomniacs."

Kafka, for example, believed his insomnia was a direct source of his creativity. And Nabokov thought sleep was "the most moronic fraternity in the world." Spaar divides the anthology of some 80 insomnia poems into three sections: "solitude and vigil," "anguish and longing," and "epiphany and vision."

With more than 200 poems that she and colleagues came up with, "and they are still coming in," she had to shorten the proposed book to make it manageable. There easily is enough for another volume.

The poets in the anthology also propose various remedies for insomnia, including reading, or the favorite of the several "perambulators," like Frost: walking.

Reading is Spaar's own preferred method. "I used to fight it. Now I've gotten a little more philosophical about it," she says. "I've learned to accept the flow of it. Just hearing all these other voices has helped."


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