Sane, Good and Safe To Know

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The Independent Online
The poet's sane, it says so here

Forget the sex, the drugs, the beer

Bang goes my image and career

And this new study makes it clear

That malt does less than Milton can

To justify God's way to man.

I'll change my clothes this very day

And throw my silver boots away

And out will go my dandy shirts

And rakish hats, but how it hurts

To pare my vast sartorial needs

Down to these brogues and Harris Tweeds.

Despite Lord Byron and Rimbaud

I'm sane, I'm good, I'm safe to know

Perhaps you'd like to meet my wife

We live a quiet suburban life

So bring your daughter round for tea

I guarantee she's safe with me.

And healthy? God you'll never know

I run, I cycle and I row

I do aerobics in the park

With fitness king, John Cooper Clarke

His body is a citadel

He partners me in squash as well.

Myself, Attila, Hegley too

The sanest chaps you ever knew

Not locked in garrets being rude

Or drugged and dribbling in the nude

We're all of us on healthy food

To stave off any swings of mood

And Joolz the northern poetry muse

Despite those bangles and tattoos

Prevents herself from going barmy

When on tour by doing macrame

I'm sure she'd be the first to say

"No thanks" if strong drink came her way.

Poets? Happy? Yes we are.

Life for us is caviar

And angst is banished to the shade

You hear that distant cavalcade?

It's merry poets out on parade.

With love and laughter overlaid

But then course, we're so well-paid.

And never trust that novelist.

He's sly, capricious, always pissed.

And taking drugs and breaking hearts

Or running off with seamy tarts

And so your poet's the ideal kit

To ask around to baby-sit.

Poets - and take this as a rule

Will look into the muse's pool

The better for a clearer head

And for the cleaner life they've led

Those Laudanum hallucinations

Only lead to aberrations.

Take Coleridge. Please. An awful man.

I grant you he could rhyme and scan

But Kubla Khan as his best feat

Was far too long and incomplete

And we must tug a thankful forelock

To the drug-free man from Porlock.

But what this study also said

And we must take the thing as read

Is that we poets are sometimes manic

Or depressed but please don't panic

Tranquil sojourns in the bin

Will mostly rein the problem in.

So fill my briar with ready-rub

But don't detain me in the pub

I'm not a blokish type of bloke

Is it my round? I'll get my cloak

I've got to do some yoga then

I have to be in bed by ten.

And call a poet up today

Invite one to your next soiree

Secure he won't be in your loo

Syringe in arm and turning blue

He's clean. He's safe. He's erudite

I hope you like him. Poet Lite.

A psychiatric study into the mental state of leading figures of literature suggested yesterday that poets are less prone to madness than other writers. The Independent's poet laureate assesses his own state of mind, and a collection of authors and playwrights respond to the findings

Blake Morrison, poet, author of 'The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper'.

We poets have always known that we are saner than novelists and dramatists. It's just we'd rather Felix Post [the man who conducted the research] hadn't told anyone. We like the image that goes with the job, you see: loons in the garret, bats in the belfry, nuts in the gazebo, that sort of thing, all very intense and dramatic. Deprived of our reputation for drunkenness and manic depression, we worry that no one will read us. Few enough people read us as it is.

Most poets I know hold down jobs, drive cars, and can tie their own shoelaces. Few have been confined for any significant duration to a mental institution, or, except by accident, have drunk meths. Many are worldly, and most, far from being sensitive herbivores, display horrifying jealousy of and vindictiveness towards their fellow practitioners. Poets are also, on the whole, gregarious. The business of poetry readings requires it. We meet our public. We know what they look like (all three of them). We like to have a drink with them afterwards, preferably at their expense.

And this puts us at an advantage over novelists, who may sell more copies of their books but have hundreds of words to write every day and are much more isolated behind their desks. It also gives us the edge over playwrights, who find their words getting up and walking about the stage in funny clothes and Rada voices - what could be more dementia-inducing than that?

Despondency and madness are no more an attribute of poets than they are of accountants or car salesmen. Perhaps less so, since we can write off our losses in sonnets, whereas they, caught trying to write off theirs, will go to jail.

Julie Myerson, novelist, author of 'Sleepwalking' and 'The Touch'.

Writers were always going to rank high in the nutter stakes. Writing is pure self-indulgence. There's little more likely to send you off the rails than being paid to make up anything you like and have people read it and write to you saying, "Oh, you're so right, I know just what you mean, I so loved the way you expressed that."

Writing novels means you wield an amazing power. By the end of the day, you're a power-crazed lunatic, you've decreed the words and thoughts and fates of so many made-up people. Someone asked me recently why my writing is so dark and I don't know, except that I find I write about what scares me. I write about what I hope won't happen, I write the things I fret about, the things I would prefer not to face. That seems to me a healthy thing to do and it leaves me free to concentrate on serious things like Hoovering and shopping.

I thought it interesting - and a little telling - that Felix Post made no study of women writers. There are, of course, some famously unbalanced ones - Woolf, Plath, Sexton - but on the whole, the thing most likely to keep a writer sane is attending to the needs of others. There's nothing quite like changing nappies, building Lego spaceships, loading the washing machine or wiping snotty noses to keep you in the real world and take your mind off yourself.

And, finally, pity me - I live with a male playwright.

Kevin Elyot, playwright, author of 'My Night with Reg'.

The writers I know tend to do things like go to Sainsbury's, but then you read something like this and think, maybe I am a bit dysfunctional somewhere down the line.

I think you do find that good playwrights exercise - maybe even exorcise - their psyches in their work. When you're writing well you become very involved with your characters, but you do also have to have objectivity.

But I tend not to meet other writers - you can, though you don't need to - so everyone else might be barking mad for all I know.

David Storey, playwright, author of 'The Changing Room'.

I think the pressures on a writer are cultural. The novelist and the playwright, by the nature of what they write, spend a longer time at their work than the poet, who is constructing an image for the page. Larkin, for example, was able to write his poetry in the evenings and in his holidays while holding down his job as a librarian; playwrights and novelists can't really just put down a little bit here and there after a hard day's work. Most poets seem to be lecturers and teachers, and the day-to-day routine of those professions might well keep any potential mental instabilities in check.

The mythology is that writers are somehow more susceptible to mental pressures and problems than non-writers, because of their introspection. It might be said, though, that writers themselves mythologise, in that they are romanticising and structuring their own experience, and therefore in that respect might be more vulnerable to mental strains, and might fluctuate from the norm. But if this research has been done using biographies of writers, you have to remember that biographies are fiction - subjective assessments of careers, which I imagine weren't written by clinicians. I am doubtful about the conclusions you could draw from that.

Fay Weldon, novelist, author of 'The Life and Loves of a She-Devil'.

I think the drunken playwright might be a myth. In the Fifties and Sixties people used to have to drink in a way that they don't now, because saying what you feel is not so much of a problem. The research may be a bit old- fashioned there.

But anyone with any energy left at the end of the day, like painters and writers, does tend to get into trouble. I think it feeds back into the Dennis Potter thing. People who write scenes and characters, people with imagination, do have difficulty in staying faithful because they can always produce a scene in which they might be involved. The fact that writers are covering pages with characters may make it difficult to tell the difference between reality and fiction. Writers get themselves into trouble in the belief that with a little ingenuity they will be able to write themselves out of it.

These speculations are endlessly interesting and I'd rather know the sexual expectation than the life expectation of various professions. It's only really interesting, though, if you can use it in a court of law. In a divorce case, perhaps: "My lord, it's my profession, I cannot help being faithless."

Sean O'Brien, poet, author of the Forward Prize-winning 'Ghost Train'.

As must be generally known, despite the occasional sight of dapper Glyn Maxwell out and about in Armani suits, there is by and large no money to be had in poetry. Novelists, on the other hand, get money by the truckload. They say they don't, but they would, wouldn't they? Plato was wrong: novelists, and not poets, are the liars of literature. They make things up, for God's sake. Obviously, the research in the British Journal of Psychiatry attributed to a Dr Felix Post (get the name from a book, did we?) is a plant, designed to further the cause of novelists and their fellow travellers, the dramatists.

The research tells us that in addition to all their privileges - fame, attention, big houses and invitations to do bits of journalism on subjects they know nothing about - novelists get the best illnesses: to wit, depression, alcoholism, personality deviations, sexual problems. Poets, on the other hand, are stuck with mood-swings and the odd manic episode. Does this seem unjust, or am I being paranoid? What we see here is novelistic megalomania. Money, property, madness, teeth - must they have it all?

Furthermore - and here the conspiracy topples over into absurdity - it is alleged that playwrights, of all people, are more promiscuous than poets. With sheep, possibly, but in the human realm, exponents of poetry, the senior literary form, are indisputably the artists par excellence. It all goes back to the Pastoral, when poets left the sheep for the novelists and playwrights to stumble across and figure out in due course. Anyone who's ever been on a residential writing course could confirm this. Why d'you think poets are so fond of the haiku? To leave more time for the other, of course.

Rachel Cusk, novelist, author of 'Saving Agnes' and 'The Temporary'.

"I seem to have the blind self-acceptance of the eccentric who can't conceive that his eccentricities are not clearly understood," Saul Bellow once said. Bellow would seem to be one of those, as were Hemingway and Faulkner, who really lives to write. Unlike them, he seems to possess a slightly milder view of his vocation. Eccentricity is a more kindly notion than madness, and a more polite way of shunning reciprocity. Were failure ever to befall Bellow, he would regard it not as his, but ours.

Bellow is right not to ask the world what it thinks of him. Look what happened to Norman Mailer: "Booze, pot, too much sex, too much failure in one's private life, too much attention, too much recognition, too little recognition, frustration ... but the worst is probably cowardice". Alcohol and madness are the two most populated sanctuaries against the fear that almost every writer has - that one day he will wake up and not be able to write any more. Everything between them can pretty much be accounted for by the fact that writers spend too much time on their own, or with people they invented. Afterwards they crave huge but intermittent injections of life, which go to the head. It's rather like existing in a permanent state of adolescence. James Thurber once said that he knew writers who had known each other for years, but who never met in daylight or when both were sober.

The more liberty one has to write, the worse the problem becomes, in that there are so few situations in which one is expected to be normal. A full-time job, or a prosaic domestic life, would perhaps provide a dam against the flooding sense of self, or at least drive it underground. This was PG Wodehouse's secret. "Ethel has always been wonderful in that way," he said. "You've got to be alone quite a bit when you're writing. She doesn't mind that at all."

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