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Sylvia Plath & Charles Bukowski: The Link Between Mental Illness and Literature, Part 2


CHARLES BUKOWSKI – American Poet (1920 – 1994)


SYLVIA PLATH – American Poet (1932 – 1963)

Charles Bukowski printed numerous writings and spent a lifetime suffering from manic-depression.   His works stand as evidence of a brain fueled with bipolar tendencies and is apparent throughout most forms of his writings.  In Screams From the Balcony he writes about his experience with manic-depression:

I have come through a green and red war these last 2 months.  My side lost but I am still more alive than ever, in a sense.  We have to pass through things, again, again – arguing with a knife blade, a bottle, weeping like a cunt in menopause, afraid to stop out a door…afraid of birds, fleas, mice…encircled by a clock, a typewriter, a half-open closet door full of ghosts, killers, horrors, like sea-bottoms.  And then it ends.  You are calm again.  As calm as…a garage mechanic.   I think of D. H. Lawrence title: Look We Have Come Through (30).

Bukowski’s writings define a mind suffering from manic-depression and underscore aspects of living with the disease.  He points to a two month period where he experiences bipolar moods which he describes as “green” and “red.”  He describes a maniacal state as being “more alive than ever, in a sense.”  He portrays the need to pass through these states “again” and “again,” and points out the fear that accompanies a mind running in a depressed episode. The dark depth like “sea-bottoms” end and it is “calm again.”  He demonstrates the ebb and flow of these episodes that repeat themselves over and over.  He closes his letter with a reference to D. H. Lawrence, another writer considered to have manic-depressive symptoms.  This is one example of how writers can find other writers with the same condition without even knowing the association.  It provides hope that an individual can find solace knowing there are forms of writings out there that echo similar feelings found across the board for manic-depressive individuals.  In Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook, Bukowski dreams of “Shelley” who was also known to have manic-depression. Bukowski writes:


“drunk again in a crackerbox room, dreaming of Shelley and youth, bearded, jobless bastard with a walletful of win tickets un-cashable as Shakespeare’s bones.  we can all hate poems of pity or cries of wailing poor – a good man can climb any flag and salute prosperity (we’re told) but how many good men can get in an air-tight jar?  and how many poets can you find at IBM or snoring under the sheets of a fifty-dollar whore?  more good men have died for poetry than all your crooked battlefields were worth; so if I fall drunk in a four-dollar room: you messed up your history – let me dawdle in mine” (25).


In Bukowski’s reflection on the nature of his life, he pushes two words together to describe himself in a “crackerbox” room.  He discusses what defines a good man and in doing so, describes himself as someone that can get in an “air-tight jar” who snores under the sheets of a “fifty-dollar whore” and may “fall drunk in a four-dollar room.”  Bukowski challenges conventional notions of what constitutes a good man, and in doing so, defends his lifestyle and celebrates his poetry.  He holds strong beliefs in individuality and personal expression, which mark several bipolar minds.  Bukowski not only shows manic-depression in his work, but also lived the life of a bipolar individual.

In Portions From a Wine-Stained Book, Bukowski discusses poetry and the themes of a search for answers and of reason and passion.  Bukowski states:


I was drawn into an area: what answers there were and what force there was (feeble as it might seem) appeared to be in the creative art of writing- novel, short story, poetry.  And I guess more through love than reason (and what can be a better reason?) I have long since decided that poetry is the shortest, sweetest, bangingest way (35).


Bukowski finds answers and forces through poetry.  Similar to Coleridge’s expressive language, Bukowski uses heightened language with the words “shortest, sweetest, bangingest way.”  He discusses the source of his writing and reflects on love versus reason as fueling his assessment that poetry is superior.  Bukowski is known to have unique arrangement of words to relay the story he tells in his poetry.  The arrangements of words in several of Bukowski’s writings manifest a mind driving a pen as close to its intention as possible.  Similar to Coleridge who believed in the specific placement of every word, Bukowski felt poetry should be written in a particular format.  In Screams From The Balcony Bukowski writes a letter that emphasized his feelings on structure.


Do you double space your poems?  I know one is supposed to double space stories, articles, etc. for clarity and easy reading but the poem due to its construction (usually much space) read easy enough singled.  And I think a double-spaced poem loses its backbone, it flops in the air.  I don’t know: the world is always sniping sniping so hard at the petty rules petty mistakes, I don’t get it, what doesn’t it mean? Bitch bitch bitch.  Meanwhile the point going by: is the poem good or bad in your opinion?  Rules are for old maids crossing the street (15).


In Bukowski’s letter he moves from a light tone as he comments on the construction of poetry than he stops at “I don’t know:”  He breaks his tone with a colon then changes gears as he rants on the world and its “sniping” at pettiness.  Once again Bukowski is pushing the limits of conventional rules and making his own way.  He continues his critique and plays with words asking what “doesn’t it mean” and follows it with “bitch” repeated three times.  Like Coleridge, repetitive diction also marks bipolar writers.  Bukowski then swings back to his initial question about his work.  Similar to the ebb and flow of his mind, his tone returns to a soft beat with a hint of insecurity in his query about the condition of his work.  After stringing ideas running in his head he returns to the point of the letter which inquired about his writing.  He goes full circle back to his initial point of the letter then tosses in his thoughts on those that follow the rules with a metaphor for those that stick to rules.

In one letter Bukowski reveals his whispered desperation for publication wrapped in frustration for getting his work out there.   All emotions that string along in the letter reveal the moods of his mind as they run from idea to idea, all laced in passion.

In “The Click Of Miracle” found in Septuagenarian Stew Stories and Poems, Bukowski writes poetry in his own format which reveals his mind.  This results in the formation of his text.


Such small








Such small


















The words dribble down the page with a beat that gives a driving force to the text and connotes the pace of Bukowski’s mind.   As the mind reaches the end of a thought, it abruptly stops to a halt at “holds.”  Another poem by Bukowski reflects on his experience with melancholic states, and his tone connotes those feelings which he has dealt with before.  In “Melancholia” Bukowski writes:


…me, I writhe in dirty sheets

while staring at blue walls

and nothing.


I have gotten so used to melancholia


I greet it like an old



….I listen to drums on the radio now

and grin.

there is something wrong with me




Bukowski describes his melancholic state with acute description.  He stares at “blue walls” and feels “nothing.”  He is accustomed to the feelings as he “greets it like an old friend.”   He has a bipolar response to his state of melancholia as he “grins” then switches tone and finishes off with a serious line “there is something wrong with me / besides / melancholia.”  Although Bukowski never states what the “something” is, he comes up with this insight during a depressed episode.  The arrangement of words in this final stanza may emphasize his feelings toward his current condition and his overall thoughts on himself.  He listens to “drums” then “grins.”  He juxtaposes this emotion with “there is something wrong with me” and writes “besides” alone for it is one of many things wrong with him.  He finishes by going back to his initial thought: melancholia.  The arrangement of diction not only reflects his flow of thoughts but the pacing allows the reader to stop and think at the pause of “besides,” and follows up with the finality of “melancholia.”  He writes “there is something wrong with me,” then the line takes a breath before it continues to the word “besides” which hovers there before it returns to his present melancholic state.  This example of syntax and word choice helps to express the way Bukowski’s manic-depressive mind forms verse to express the nature of his condition.

Sylvia Plath, another known manic-depressive writer, embarks on a description of her own source of material:


out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say that I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle and a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind. I think personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a shut-box and mirror-looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things (Wagner 90-91).


Plath points to emotional experience as driving her work.  She looks at the juxtaposition of reason and passion with an emphasize on reason being necessary as one “should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind.”  Plath’s diction defines her mood and interpretation of that mood as “cries from the heart” stem from a piercing source like a “needle and a knife.”  She has no sympathy for “these cries” and makes a distinction between herself and the cries as if they are a separate entity.  She openly reveals she cannot put her finger on the source, “or whatever it is.”  In four words, Plath points to the exact issue facing diagnosing manic-depression.  There is a lack of knowing where the source stems from, or “whatever” that “is,” and in turn, how the source thoroughly dictates behavior.  What is the source of “madness?”  What chemistry feeds the mind to enable it to put words and phrases together, mixed with unique style and punctuation to complete an idea, and how is “this” revealed in literary works?  When Dickinson asked the question, “Could it be Madness – this?”, she resonate this idea as she herself calls into question the source causing her odd mind.

Plath tries to control her terrifying experience “like madness” which is described as “being tortured.”  She points to manipulation as intrinsic to the writing process as she believes “one should be able to manipulate these experiences.”  She admits there is a madness that exists which demands a rational mind in the creative process.  This bears the question of how chemical imbalances rooted in the mind may often times result in words on the page brought forth from an emotional place that is not controlled, nor should be, in the creative process.  Does rational thought impede the finished creative product, or is it necessary to use rational thought within passion to produce great work?  Would a poem be significantly different with rational constraints on the creative process?

Finally, Plath points to narcissism as a characteristic she tries to avoid.  Narcissistic traits are often prominent in manic-depressive individuals.  Plath makes a point to be wary of such behaviors as they may result in a “mirror-looking, narcissistic experience.”  Manic-depression is characteristic of individuals who have a high opinion of themselves, inflated egos, or feelings of special importance.  Likewise, manic-depressive writers often get caught up in the search of the self, and discovery of life in their own personal experience, which results in a  “shut-box” way of thinking with its roots in narcissism.

Sad woman image available from Shutterstock.

Sylvia Plath & Charles Bukowski: The Link Between Mental Illness and Literature, Part 2

Erica Loberg

Erica Loberg was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. She attended Columbia University in New York and graduated with a BA in English. She is a published poet and author of Inside the Insane, Screaming at the Void, What Men Should Know About Women, What Women Should Know About Men, Diamonds From The Rough and Undressed.

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APA Reference
Loberg, E. (2013). Sylvia Plath & Charles Bukowski: The Link Between Mental Illness and Literature, Part 2. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Jul 2013
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