Books: Mad, sad and dangerous?

This Thursday, 9 October, is National Poetry Day. Around the country there will be events prize-giving and readings publishers are busy putting out the best of old and new TWENTIETH-CENTURY BEYOND BEDLAM: Poems Written out of Mental Distress ed Ken Smit
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The Independent Culture
It is A conversational platitude that creative writers - poets, novelists, playwrights - are more inclined than the rest of fallen humanity to suffer from psychiatric disorders of one kind or another, whether it be of the full-blown variety, or merely troubling eccentricities such as Tennyson's seemingly obsessive wish to be seen about town in that famous quango-wanglish Spanish hat of his.

But is it true? And are poets perhaps worse afflicted than the rest? According to Dr Felix Post, the consultant psychiatrist who has contributed a foreword to this anthology of poetry on the edge, a collection which usefully mixes poems by established figures such as Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and Emily Dickinson with work by unknown patients who have undergone psychiatric treatment of one kind or another, the answer to the first question is yes, and to the second, no.

Yes, having examined biographies of 400 famous men and women of the past 150 years, Dr Post concludes that emotional breakdowns, mainly depressive illnesses, "have afflicted creative writers twice as often as visual artists, composers, thinkers, national leaders and scientists." But no, poets are not, as Byron claimed, any madder than the rest. In fact, writers who have published only poetry are likely, according to Dr Post, to have suffered less often from depression, alcoholism, social and sexual maladjustment than those who have only produced prose fiction or plays.

If this is true, why should it be so? Because poetry - and lyric poetry in particular - can serve as valuable self-therapy in so far as it has the capacity to express particular instances of emotional distress in rhythmical and harmonious language. And this kind of concentrated lyric effusion, though emotionally painful to the writer, is much better therapy than the protracted investigation of the trials and tribulations of characters in novels or plays, which is more likely to aggravate depressive tendencies.

The anthology mixes the known with the unknown willy-nilly, and that leads to some interesting conclusions. When we read a fragment from Pound's "Canto CXV" beside Susan Gaukroger's "A Common Cause", which concludes with the following lines: "From Hell, Hull and Halifax, / good Lord deliver us. / Noli me tangere," we recognise immediate affinities between what Yeats once described as Pound's characteristic "collage" technique and Gaukroger's emotionally distressed jumps and lurches.

That word "collage" has always been a serious term of critical praise, not only a reference to an act of creative daring on Pound's part, but also a cross-reference to, for example, Cubist technique. The presence of Susan Gaukroger's poem beside Pound's helps us to recognise that Pound may have been writing in that way because he was being driven by what could just as easily have been described as some kind of "psychiatric disorder". And that would have been not so much to praise him as to denigrate him, of course.

Robert Lowell's famous poem "Walking in the Blue" appears in this book too, and it too loses something from its presence here. Lowell's scenes of "mental disorder" in the institution where he's immured, so brash, so self-conscious, so much wallowing in the glorious craziness of his role here in the middle of all these "thoroughbred mental cases", feel a little tacky and distasteful now. It is as if he canoodled his way into that bedlam for the sake of all the marvellous copy he'd be bringing back to that cosy and marvellously shockable poetry community out there.

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