Wonderful Suffering

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Elliott, Alissa
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School of Letters , School of Letters Thesis 2019 , Johannes Brahms , Clara Schumann , lettters
When I began the MFA program at the Sewanee School of Letters, I wasn’t sure which genre I would write in, but I knew what story I wanted to tell. I was struggling through the onset of Bipolar II as a college sophomore when I learned of Robert Schumann’s mental illness and his wife’s close and lasting friendship with their friend and fellow-composer Johannes Brahms. While I am only an amateur choral singer, my grandmother played the piano well, and she especially liked Schumann. The spring I entered the Schumanns’ circle, my grandmother bought a piano to replace the one her husband had sold to a drinking buddy, saying “Nobody plays this old thing.” She grieved when he died, when I was six, but she took great pleasure in returning to music and played “Traumerei” from Schumann’s Carnaval and “Claire de Lune” over and over well into her 80s. Both of my grandmother’s children, my mother and uncle, had serious mental health problems, like Clara Schumann’s husband and son, and this parallel led me to explore the intersections between artistic creativity, romantic love, and mental illness in my own life. Deeply affected by the bipolar psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched With Fire, a study of bipolar illness and the artistic temperament, and Setting the River on Fire her clinical biography of Robert Lowell, I wanted to bring the historical and personal together in a cycle of poems inspired by the letters, compositions, household books, and flower diaries of Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. As my research deepened each summer, certain questions arose again and again. Does compulsive attention to a particular form, such as fugue, for Robert Schumann, or iambic pentameter for Lowell, exacerbate or help mental illness? What are the demands on the mind and the body of indulging the connection to something beyond daily life? What is the cost of a life that seeks to do more than live, and how is that cost born by the body, the mind, and the family of the artist? I draw consolation from Clara’s exacting standards, from her resolution not to compromise, and I hoped to write my way into some of the strength that allowed her to endure the deaths of her husband and three of her children, the depression and chronic pain she suffered as she persevered to perform hundreds of the finest piano performances of her time. My advisor Nickole Brown introduced us to a set of habits around observation and composition that will likely be the most lasting effect of the program. We read longer, looser poems by Larry Levis and Ross Gay that documented the poets’ lived experience and impressions of their immediate surroundings and practiced imitations of their work. I found this very difficult, partly because, like many mentally ill people, my outer senses are often dull or inaccurate. Cultivating habits of attentiveness and gratitude led me to a fuller understanding of what poetry could do. Imitating Nick Flynn’s poems in Some Ether about his mother’s mental illness and suicide offered opportunities to approach similar content from my own experience. The next summer, our workshop group walked on moss with our eyes closed, listened to music, free wrote at length, and read, among others, Patricia Smith, whose use of form explored traumatic, shared memory in Blood Dazzler. I was also inspired by Natasha Trethewey’s illumination of the experience of a mixed-race sex worker in New Orleans at the turn of the century in Bellocq’s Ophelia. Clara Schumann described her career as a virtuoso as an obligation to her own talent, but quit composing in midlife, after writing 70 compositions, because she “had not known a woman to do it.” Hadn’t she done it herself? Perhaps that wasn’t enough. Between summer sessions, I began to study German for reading knowledge and dug deeper into biographical details the broader record obscured, including the birth of a daughter to Schumann by a domestic worker, and Clara Schumann’s awareness of this relationship. I listened to the music of all three composers constantly, particularly Helene Grimaud’s recording of Brahms’ first piano concerto, which Clara Schumann performed three times in her life, despite the damage the technically demanding piece did to her hands and arms. I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Joseph and his Brothers in English and practiced my own translations of Rilke, Heine, and Holderlin poems the composers had set to music. I had studied German Romanticism in a previous graduate program and returned to the works of Jean Paul and Novalis to understand the intellectual context for the Schumann’s relationship with Brahms, whom Schumann entrusted with his considerable library. Many of these works emphasize the significance of “pure” music that does not tell a story or draw on historical or personal content, but rather transports the artist and the listener to a realm beyond that of earthly experience. In search of further assistance in structuring my work, I turned to Jessica Jacobs’ Pelvis with Distance, a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keefe’s relationship with Alfred Stieglitz supported by a frame narrative charting the author’s personal and creative investment in the project. In a telephone conversation, Jacobs emphasized the poet’s responsibility to create and manage an experience for the reader, something she manages in Pelvis with Distance through controlling the balance of pieces in each voice or perspective and allowing extracts of the O’Keefe correspondence to stand alone as found poems. As a result, I winnowed down my many epigraphs and quotations to focus on the Brahms-Clara letters and imposed a three-part structure modeled on the form of the first piano concerto.