Sleepless -- but not
lost for words
gathers poems about insomnia through the age
By Robert Brickhouse
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.
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
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.
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,
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
A main theme of insomnia, both for poets and everyone else, is
often an awareness, conscious or unconscious, of death, Spaar
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."
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
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
poets in the anthology also propose various remedies for insomnia,
including reading, or the favorite of the several "perambulators,"
like Frost: walking.
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."