Giving Shape to the Shapeless: Prosody and Depression

Alexander Long


Alexander Long and Oscar beside Emily Dickinson’s home

How do we write about what renders us mute, that deadens us: Depression? How can we not write about it? The long, dark night of the soul—I hate that cliché, probably for its accuracy, especially during the daylight hours—doesn’t descend more on poets than anyone else. It’s just that poets may often be associated with Depression (more than, say, plumbers) because of the simple yet miraculous fact that we have moving, crushing, poignant, terrifying, and inspiring records of those battles.

How do poets get down on paper the ineffable, enormous dark looming within and that appears everywhere without? And, closer to the bone, how might I find not just the words but the resolve, the persistence, the courage, to scoop that part out of myself that is Hell? And, further still, how might I guide a student brave and desperate enough to reveal his/her own battles, be it in a draft of a poem or in a comment during class or during a conversation during office hours?

Show me a pedagogical best practices memo on the prosody of Depression, and I’ll show you a dart board in my office. I’ll do my best to keep my fuck you under my breath. There’s no template for this kind of thing. There are, of course, signs that manifest as symptomatic of Depression: lethargy; painful numbness (oxymoronic, indeed); ruminative-yet-circular thought accompanied by rambling and tangential thought; loss of memory; abjection of the self (and of most everything else); inability to connect thoughts; physical pain coupled with cognitive stupor; difficulty in articulation. The list isn’t long. It’s endless. Each of these physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms can have their prosodic coefficient if one listens intently enough. It’s not easy. The term line break, for example, rings with a certain sharpness, a distinct menace, a particular piercing pain as if a digit or extremity has been snapped soundlessly but for the throat expiring the air that accompanies these kinds of fractured transformations.

After such otherwise universal symptoms are identified, the commonalities end. Thereafter, each battle with Depression is singular, and as such—from the perspective of a creative writing professor who endures Depression in my various ways and who works with students who sometimes open up about their own Depression—must be worked through with a singularity of awareness and sensitivity that attempts to address each student’s work and experiences on those individualized terms.

What I offer here is far from a solution. At best, what I offer are four examples—two poems of mine, and two poems by a master who charts the workings of her pained psyche—that might contain a few helpful thoughts one might translate into his/her own writing and teaching lives, so it’s meaningful, perhaps cathartic, perhaps even a bit therapeutic.

My poem “On Depression,” as its title indicates, takes its subject head on as much as one can take Depression head on. Among Depression’s powers are its shiftiness and its shadiness. It’s also relentless, shrewd, charming, and physically imposing. Sometimes, I imagine my Depression as a grifter and hired goon in a dark alley who forces me to play its shell game, convinces me to lose, beats me up, takes my money, and compels me to apologize so vociferously that I actually believe I’ve done something that warrants an apology.

In my poem—which is silently dedicated to all those who have this strange affliction of the mind, especially my students—my speaker (who is me, or at least the unDepressed-me anticipating another imminent battle; there is little artifice at work here) tries to get some writing done before Depression’s descent. There’s an urgency to get as much done as possible (which, apart from neurological factors, may also account for bouts of mania, or something like it). But how? How to show and sing what this arctic-like desert of the mind feels like, sounds like, looks like, smells like, tastes like?

As I’ve hinted above, two moves I almost instinctively rely upon involve concretizing the amorphous abstraction of Depression. One move involves trying to personify it without turning it into a cartoon (the grifter-goon is one such attempt). Another move puts Depression under the lens of the Image and the five senses. Trying to articulate what Depression tastes like, for example, has enabled me to fill up about half a notebook, but nothing worth placing in a poem, yet. These concretizing exercises may help generate raw content, but most it of remains just that: raw, unformed, stilted, clichéd, rhythm-less, voiceless, music-less ramblings. No one, apart from my therapist (because she has to, because she’s paid to), should have to read any of that. The real work involves giving shape and voice to the shapeless and voiceless omnipresence of Depression. How?

Ah! Form! That’s why forms exist: to give us that necessary restraint, those helpful and timeless templates to fill in and expand and contract and blow up. William Matthews best explains my relationship with received forms in his essay “Merida, 1969”: “What else should I say about form? Content is often unsettling or painful in poems, but form is play, a residue of the fun the poet had while working. Of course, like form and content, pain and fun want to be each other.” When abstracted and placed in neat binary columns, Depression and form make a whole lot of sense. But anyone who suffers from Depression knows in her and his marrow that there’s nothing neat nor logical nor formal about any of its realities. It is a chaotic and purposeless pain, nearly all of it untranslatable.

In “On Depression,” the speaker tries out a couple of centuries-tested forms that prove to be of little help. Maybe the looping of a villanelle will…. No, that’s painting myself into a corner, and I’m not Elizabeth Bishop after all. How about a sestina? Yes! That’s more freeing but restricted until…right around halfway through the third sestet, and my lines begin to run so long that even Whitman might be inclined to say, Mmm, trim that up, son, you’re getting unwieldy. The sonnet? Which? There’s no deep love story here (Petrarchan, out), and you think you can render the conundrum of Depression into a rhyming couplet (Shakespearean, out)? Blank verse? Sure, maybe, and besides what’s left, the prose poem? God, no, not that, not for this. Every form has its place and occasion and state of mind, after all. Unless….

And so, my speaker calls bull shit on the whole enterprise: writing, living, Depression, the ineffable all of it. The screeching too-much-ness, as I tried to explain to my therapist. As the poem concludes, my speaker can sense the it of Depression hanging over his shoulders; its descent is imminent, if not already there; and because the pain is acute, the logical (per se) response is to apologize. After all, if there’s pain, especially this kind of pain, there must have been some sort of wrong committed; and because I’m experiencing the pain, I must be the one who’s transgressed. If I apologize enough, maybe the pain will subside. Right? Right?

The poem attempts not so much a peek behind the curtain of writing and of Depression; it’s more a setting fire to that curtain. The best form that felt the least awkward is the fractured-blank verse I was able to cast the chaos and carnage of my Depression into.

On Depression

I’m writing this down now because I’m not
In it, and because when I am I can’t.
I’m wondering if I should write as fast
As I can, or if I should fully give
Myself over to form, something ancient,
Reliable, almost prescribed so I
Don’t give in to melodrama, bloated
Self-pity, easy abstraction, and all
The other plagues I fear that really do
Reveal who I am, reveal who we all
Might be.  A villanelle or sestina
Maybe, something necessarily
Repetitive and ruminative,
A tight, suffocating arrangement
Of rooms that have no doors, at least when I
Build them, or like a house of mirrors
At a carnival.  Or maybe I should
Dive into the slipstream of a prose poem,
And buoyed by an image, let syntax
And the scattered rhythms and timbres
Of my psyche carry me away
Into a darkness visible only
To the suicides and the God, my God
Too, who has blessed them.  Maybe an epic
Could distill its size and scope into
A shape that would keep historians,
Scholars, and other puzzled on-lookers
Busy for centuries.  You see?  Bull shit.
All bull shit.  It can’t be written
About.  And now—now!—I can feel it
Coming, or more likely, something like it
Because all along I’ve been trying
To summon it.  That’s not how it works.
It is a floating thing, a hovering,
An always-about-to-strike, a cocky
Snicker when I flinch.  And now I am not….
Something has faded, is fading, always
Fading, and I’m sorry, I’m always so
Sorry, and I have no idea why.

Were I able to chart the most intricate workings and misfirings of my mind, I’d offer them. Some day, maybe.

Luckily, miraculously, we have Emily Dickinson. Her uncanny anticipation of the confounded (or horrified) reception of her work by her contemporaries is overshadowed only by her mind-blowing, mind-excavating, mind-illuminating forward-and-inward-looking poems. She shared so few of her nearly 1,800 poems with so few people because she must have known in her marrow that 1) she’d be misunderstood; 2) how breathtakingly fantastic they were; 3) how unready the world was for her; and 4) that some poems were just too painful, too close to the bone, to share without fear of being sent to an asylum. (I have absolutely no proof of any of these potentialities, but each strikes me as entirely plausible.) Poem #372 (in the Franklin Variorum) is one such poem:


After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round—
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—

This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—

Perfect poems don’t exist. This one comes very close. Dickinson abandons her preferred ballad stanza for something relatively freer. The first stanza is a quatrain housing two heroic couplets. In the last two lines, Dickinson brings back the heroic couplet in an attempt to give the poem some sort of symmetry. The pentameters lend themselves to a grieving, pained voice and, therefore, mind while the close, couplet rhymes attempt to evidence that chaos is being held at bay.

The seven lines between these heroic couplets vary capriciously from dimeter (lines 6 and 8) to trimeter (lines 7, 10, and 11) to tetrameter (lines 5 and 9). Predictable rhyme is abandoned; only lines 8 and 9 rhyme, while the other five don’t even approach anything resembling slant rhyme (unless “Lead” and “lived” are meant to rhyme visually.)

Emily Dickinson, Fascicle 18, around 1862.

In a poem of thirteen lines, there are no periods. There are, however, eleven dashes; six of them appear in the final quatrain; four of them in the last line. The poem’s pace, already noticeably shaky as evidenced by the vacillating meters, nearly comes to a halt by line thirteen. The speaker can barely get the words out to articulate the exquisitely terrifying closing epiphanic image.

What does the unpacking of the poem’s prosody have to do with the psychic taxings and burdens of Depression? Nearly everything. The markers of Depression—in a poem as well as in one’s life—are evident: lethargy, numbness, ruminative and rambling thought, loss of memory, abjection of the self, inability to connect thoughts, and difficulty in articulation. Painful stasis dominates the poem’s lexicon and imagery: stiff, Tombs, mechanical, Wooden, Quartz, stone, Lead, Freezing, snow, Chill, Stupor. Eleven words this heavy across thirteen lines, how could one not understand this to be a poem mired in excruciating stillness?

It is, and it isn’t. Notice, too, how nimbly Dickinson’s mind shifts from statement to image to thought to feeling to vision. She achieves the impossible by violating fundamental laws of physics via her pained psyche: she’s simultaneously stuck in place while moving all over the place. The shackles of her Depression also serve as her winged chariot. The focus is as scattered as the meters are seemingly scattered and capricious; but it’s entirely, masterfully under control. This psyche’s logic is tautological, but the voice’s command and clarity make it sound, and become, universal.

Dickinson has made Depression amazing.


But that’s not the end of Depression—“then the letting go”—not if one is still alive and enduring it and trying to write through and about it. There is something like a fantasy, after all, realized and expressed in 372. As I reminded a group of my students at the end of a class-long (seventy-five minutes) session on the poem: Dickinson lived to write about another 1,500 poems after 372.

However much I love the definite article—the letting go—; however much I owe Dickinson in ways practical and imaginative and spiritual because of that definite article; however much I’m in awe of how she owns her pain, makes it hers before it makes her its, something is amiss.

One might be tempted to conclude that endurance is the rub. I agree, even as it sometimes rubs so persistently, relentlessly, one feels scoured beyond rawness into something like numbness. But only for a little or longer while. It ends. Then, the attendant pains of Depression come lurking and strutting, rushing and blazing back, all of these simultaneously. And more. And less. Nothing holds, nothing stays, nothing leaves. Nothing. Well, nothing but consciousness. That, too, could go away just as quickly as a match strikes flint, as a high-speed train horses through a station with no guardrails.


Dickinson’s 340 bears witness to a particular mindset that has endured and is still enduring an acute and (I pray isn’t, but fear is) a prolonged bout of Depression:


I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And mourners to and fro
Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through—

And when they all were seated,
A Service, a like a Drum—
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My mind was going numb—

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space—began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here—

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then—

Here, we’re privileged to witness Dickinson who seems drawn more to endurance than desperation, as long as she can, anyway. Endurance has its consequences and epiphanies and ecstasies. Her psyche presents itself as taxed, yes, but not yet exhausted. She works through what I try to name as “the scattered rhythms and timbres” of a depressed psyche in her adopted, then adapted, ballad stanza. She does so as only she can: with uncanny meddle, vulnerability, despair, awareness, acceptance, and endurance.

Emily Dickinson 1846/7

Her endurance evinces itself, perhaps, most resolutely in her meter: her adherence to and flirtations with and, finally, fleeings from a regimented cadence. The meter in 340 (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”) unfolds with more regularity than it does in 372 (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes”). The rhymes, also, in 340 present themselves in positions—delectably slanted—with a predictability not found in 372. Something like order wishes to reside in, if not preside over, 340. I admire the attempt, deeply.

To my mind and experience, though, 372 is—today, anyway—a more successful effort because of its abandonment of form, its seeking out a form of its own to contain the shapeless reality of Depression. Ask me tomorrow, I’ll probably think something different.

The conclusion of 340 (“And Finished knowing – then –”) resembles that of 372 (“First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –”) in its hesitance to end; the epiphanies astound the speaker into something like an ineffable clarity. This elongation of time, and therefore consciousness, is realized by the dash. The dash enables Dickinson to capture one of Depression’s most confounding paradoxes: the simultaneous plea for annihilation and endurance. But what 340 lacks is what 372 exudes: a believable voice buoyed by the vacillating meters, which are informed by the pained voice and psyche.

I’m not advocating for an abdication of form when enduring and plumbing the terrain of Depression. Far from it. Form is what keeps us afloat, it’s the air we breathe, the residue of play, as William Matthews puts it.


It was through James Wright that I discovered the prose poem, and through the prose poem, I was able to begin the lifelong endeavor of attempting to write about Depression. Dickinson and Hopkins and Auden and Berryman and early-career James Wright (to name how many others) working in stricter forms will never cease to amaze me, to teach me, to humble me. But, the poet I am right now, and seemingly have been for a while, can’t get what Wright identifies as a “pure, clear word” into what’s been identified by centuries’ worth of evidence as received forms.

But, the prose poem is a window I can climb through; it’s not a room I feel trapped in.

The forms a poet finds him/herself working in are often indexes of his/her psyches. More poets might be better served to at least consider such a claim and test it out.

My first “successful” (i.e., published) effort about Depression appeared as a prose poem. It’s nearly twenty-years old now, and I can’t recall what guided me through one thought to the next, that image to the next, that syntactical configuration held against an earlier one.

I’d just wrapped up my second Master’s Degree, the second from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. This was, to the best of my recollection, a year-long boot-camp-like initiation into poetic form. I was also going through a divorce alongside a newly discovered diagnosis of clinical Depression, which required what turned out to be a lengthy trial-and-error period in finding the right medications alongside daily counseling.

To say I was struggling goes a little distance to help redefine understatement. It was a very difficult time. Which means, for all of us—respectively—an eventually laughable time, if enough grace and endurance and luck are bestowed. Then, three months later, September 11, 2001 happened; and whatever self-induced mockery that provided a bit of levity evaporated. History, like poetic forms, chooses us, defines us. Our control of control is, at best, illusory. And in that awareness, there’s something like hope, or at least a voice.

My voice, so far, in all my poems is truest in my prose poems. One of my first efforts attempting to articulate Depression came after reading Kubler-Ross’ On Death and Dying as lawyers divvied up my possessions and pets and debts via divorce proceedings. What is, perhaps, most instructional in all of this is that having been immersed in received forms while also being put through the emotional, psychological, and financial wringers of divorce and Depression simultaneously—all before I’d reached my twenty-seventh birthday—can catalyze and maybe engender a poem worth a damn from time to time.

The prose poem makes it nearly impossible for me to lie, if only to myself, for that’s where all lies germinate. And, so far, my poems aren’t worth much if they don’t have a voice attempting something like truth, even if I don’t understand it.

Meditation on Preparatory Depression

This is the time when the patient may just ask for a prayer, when he begins to occupy himself with things ahead rather than behind.  —Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Deep into summer, there’s little sleep. Most nights, I’m on the cusp until dawn, thick with sweat and regret. This morning, it’s cicadas. They must be wringing their wings, that rapid whine of somnolence. I have no dream to forget or subconsciously argue with, no climax of a nightmare to twitch my body up, no gauzy residue of some dome-lit redemption. Repetition, the droll music of counting sheep and Hail Mary’s, soft murmurs of my childhood insomnia. Then forms float from trees. Some leaves falling early. Tall grass sways elegantly in a breeze’s indecipherable, unmistakable weave whipped up, not by the sea sliding, but by an ambulance crying by. So much for a pastoral. Still, there must be something ideal enough I want. Coffee, cigarettes, chat by the water cooler: “Morning.” “How’s the weekend shaping up?” “The kids?” All that’s mustered after the lags in traffic, all that’s smiled through after the squeeze in, then out, of the subway like chattel. All we hide and know, denial on full throttle. Knowing where the day has gone, is going. Tomorrow, I will walk the thirty-three blocks to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The time it will take. Dull flashes of guilt will glimmer like snowflakes at night. And after, I will hail a taxi. The driver will nod Where to?

Indeed, there’s not much I understand in this poem that came out of me and my experiences with Depression, yet much of it rings and feels utterly true and right. Especially its form. Early drafts were put down in lines, a free-verse line hovering somewhere between trimeters and pentameters, most of them trochaic and dactylic. Something about those falling meters is suggestive of my Depressed voice: a strange declination, a retreat from articulation, a failure of thought but still not as ineffable as the ellipsis implies. I was very conscious not to employ an ellipsis. That would be too much, a kind of banging-of-the-gong announcing “and here is a poem of Depression!” Besides, the title and the epigraph risk enough melodrama. I cash in all those chips right from the start. Now, the poem’s got to earn them.

As for the prose poem form, I found it—rather, it found me—pretty late in the process. I was, after all, fresh out of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and was steeped in received forms. Among the other things on my brain were all sorts of meters as well as well-known and esoteric forms. But my attempts at form have never risen above anything like an exercise, rarely poetry, even bad poetry. Even a free-verse casting of “Meditation on Preparatory Depression” rang forced and, worse, false. In a fit of frustration mingling with defeat and fatigue, I most likely said something to myself like eh, screw it! Try it as a prose poem. No one’s gonna see it anyway.

Then all of the ill-sourced pressure was relieved. The poem could now breathe, and in its new-found breathing, it could relax and focus and begin to try to say something about what my mind was enduring and struggling to articulate, is still struggling to articulate. Instead of meters and line breaks, I could shift my attentions to sentence variety, internal rhymes, imagistic clarity and precision, associative thought sometimes to the point of pressing toward the edge of the non-sequitur, and all of these in the name of voice, perhaps even vision.

A feasible analogy for prosody and Depression, at least in this instance, might be this: I liken my discovery of the prose poem here to that umpteenth session with a therapist in which one may finally find oneself no longer trying to bullshit the therapist and, by proxy, one’s self. It comes unexpectedly, and it never ceases to surprise in its candor, insight, and bravery…something like the truth, if only for those few moments, perhaps even minutes. In that strange and blessed space, healing begins.

It can happen that quickly, capriciously, fleetingly: those flashes of insight that provide a reprieve or some hope, a possibility of something before the purposeless, pervasive dark of Depression descends again.

Writing Prompt

  1. Pick an excerpt from your journal/diary in which you are working through something akin to—or, in fact, that was, is—Depression. Special attention to care must be taken here. A breakup, a close friend moving away, a death, you got fired or mugged…something painful: these don’t qualify as Depression. They’re painful, often rawfully so. Maybe you’re working through something painful, but nothing especially traumatic or negatively significant happened. But, for reasons undetectable and ineffable, you feel spent, gutted, exhausted even before having lifted so much as a pen. That’s a reliable litmus test for identifying Depression.
  2. Try to identify the emotional center of that excerpt. It might be anger, rage, anxiety, sadness, confusion, grief, numbness, or any mix of these.
  3. Free-write: personify this feeling. Develop it as you might a character for a short story. The more layers and nuance you can ascribe to this “character,” the better. Avoid stereotypical, one-dimensional, or stock-character models. Depression as Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest strikes me as an example that won’t yield much. Conversely, Depression as a genteel toll booth collector working the graveyard shift strikes me as rather odd, and therefore, full of potential.
  4. Free-write: imagine a scene or scenario in which you (or your speaker) and this imagined character of Depression are placed in some sort of conflict. The less sensationalized, the better. An argument over coupons. A disagreement over who should empty the dishwasher. A heated discussion about whose point of contention no one can rightly remember. Something like that.
  5. Free-write: put Depression through the Image test. What does it taste, look, smell, sound, feel like? The stranger and more precise, the better.
  6. Now give all this some music. Make it sing and swing. Assign yourself a form. It can be a received form (sonnet, villanelle, sestina, etc.) or a nonce form. Whatever you decide, make sure it is regular (at least at first) and demanding. Be cognizant of the fact that certain forms in English lend themselves to particular states of mind and feeling. If you’re feeling a bit trapped, be aware of the capacities of the villanelle and sestina. If you’re feeling a bit freed, consider blank verse. If you’re feeling a bit logical and analytical, the sonnet might do you some good. If you’re feeling lost, listen your way into your own blank verse; it’ll probably turn out to be more free than blank verse, but that’s ok. Just get to work, and know what options you have. Prose poetry can, and does, work, but—if only for my own purposes and demands—only after one has worked through these, and other, forms. Sloppiness is an insult, to the art and to the disease.
  7. Begin applying your free-writing efforts into your form. See where it takes you. Be prepared not to have something to show anyone you respect for about ten years. Show it as urgently or guardedly as you deem fit.
  8. Keep working.
  9. Keep listening.
  10. Keep reading.
  11. Keep writing.
  12. Embrace Camus’ declaration that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Hell, get it tattooed on a part of your body you see every day at least a hundred times.



“Meditation on Preparatory Depression” originally appeared in Quarterly West.  Both “On Depression” and “Meditation on Preparatory Depression” are (re)printed by permission of the author, Alexander Long.

Image Credit: The fascicle of Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—” is from Houghton Library, Harvard University, and found on The Emily Dickinson Archive.

Alexander Long

Alexander Long‘s fourth book, On Distance, was published in 2018 through Stephen F. Austin University Press. Long is Associate Professor of English at John Jay College, and is working on a biography of Larry Levis.