With The Night": Anthology Gathers Poems About Insomnia And
Its Creative Legacy Through The Ages
Oct. 5, 1999 -- 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.
a newly published anthology, edited by a poet and writing teacher
at the University of Virginia, 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" (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 Elizabeth
Bishop, Jane Kenyon and Charles Simic in the present day.
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.
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
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, other
poems, both overlooked classics and unfamiliar treasures, began
to pour in.
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."
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 'little 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.
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 an 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."
divides the anthology of some 80 insomnia poems into three sections:
"solitude and vigil," "anguish and longing,"
and "epiphany and vision."
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.
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."
a review copy of "Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems"
contact Columbia University Press by fax at (212) 316-9422 or call
U.Va. News Services at (804) 924-6856. For interviews Lisa Russ
Spaar may be reached at (804) 924-6675.
Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856