“We poets in our youth begin in gladness; But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness” (William Wordsworth, Resolution and Independence, 1802).
I hesitate to invoke what we might term ‘madness’ but the milieu of poetry is often associated with this seeming liberation from cognitive, emotional and behavioural norms
“Perhaps Akhmatova was right
When she wrote who knows what shit
What tip, what pile of waste
Brings forth the tender verse
Like hogweed, like the fat hen under the fence
Like the unbearable present tense
Who knows what ill, what strife
What crude shack of a life
And how it twists sweetly about the broken sill..”
Asylum -Sasha Dugdale
Today I am turning attention to poets that wrote of madness second-hand, or were induced to write, by their own neurosis, psychosis, bi-polar nature etc. ( I use these DSM terms loosely!)
Take Elizabeth Bartlett (1924-2008) Her affinity for the mentally tormented, like the hallucinating patient in ‘The Visitors’ stems from childhood hardship and work in the Health Service. Bewildered and damaged patients were often the source of her writings although she is uncomfortable with her role as voyeur (“always playing torturer and tortured in my double role”) only too aware through her own years of psychoanalysis, how thin the borderline of so-called sanity is:
“You have heard my name called in the courts
of law for perversion and murder, and malice aforethought
Would you know me? I am also a young woman, growing
My flowers in season, feeding my cats, knowing
Little but feeling everything, writing at all times
And in all places, working out rhythms and rhymes…
The disturbance that informs much of Sylvia Plath’s poetry is something we readers admire though the personal torment she endured sits uncomfortably with us. I sense it, not least, in “The Bee Meeting” where she describes a feeling of detached alienation whilst donning the clothes of bee keeper as a kind of costume to fit in with village life.
“Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers –
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats”
I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice.
They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.”
John Clare, the Northamptonshire pastoral poet wrote over 800 poems in the asylum where he manifested delusional and manic-depressive/bi-polar episodes brought on, according to the admitting physician, by “years of poetical prosing.”:
“Through the valley depths of shade
Of night and dark obscurity
Where the path hath lost its way
Where the sun forgets the day
Where there’s nor life nor light to see
Sweet maiden wilt thou go with me
Where stones will turn to flooding streams,
Where plains will rise like ocean waves,
Where life will fade like visioned dreams
And mountains darken into caves.”
An Invite – To Eternity
I have come face to face with disturbance of the mind, the crazy flux of feelings. I’ve seen it in my mirror and partaken of it frequently as therapist, as for example here in my poem ‘Tar Baby’
“I sit with him
he is covered in black treacle
not the viscous sweet gum beaten from the cane
that runs, for the best of times, into the old rum stills
just the tarred impediment to movement
he has come begging for distraction, inspiration
a long escape ladder for the elephant trap
of his molasses mind – but I shun that kind of touch
and despite all the dumb insults
he knows we have to lick him clean”
For this Poetics Challenge, write in the 1st or 3rd person of your own experiences (real or imagined) or your witnessing mental health issues. Or if you prefer, base it on a poem which depicts living with, or alongside, ‘madness’ – and don’t forget to reference it!
Add your poem to Mr Linky below and follow the links to others – do read and comment on contributors who have joined us in today’s Poetics challenge. It helps to be encouraging. You can also leave a comment below!