Friday, 14 January 2011

Poetry, Madness and Cure

Society's definitions

Society and Madness

As Professor Philip Thomas (Lancaster University) says "There have always been people in societies and cultures who have different experiences of reality compared with the majority, and there's always been an overlap between people who have those gifts, or insights, and people who are identified as suffering from mental illnesses." ... "it's the strangeness of people's experience, and what they try to communicate about it, that's dangerous, threatening, anxiety-provoking to those of us who have conventional rationalities"

Society's opinion about madness and how to deal with it varies - isolationism, integration, or normalisation have been tried. Foucault argues that with the gradual disappearance of leprosy, madness came to occupy this excluded position. The ship of fools in the 15th century is a literary version of one such exclusionary practice, the practice of sending mad people away in ships.

Society and Creativity

The nature of creativity is another socially defined variable. In the 19th Century, Sass writes, the tradition of the romantic poet was the paradigm of a creative human. Eccentrics and outsiders had more trouble in some other times.

Useful Madness Traits

Schizophrenia and depression are the mental illness most linked to creativity in the historical context says Dr. Schuldberg. Most often, artists who

  • focus on emotions and feelings in their work are manic-depressive. Dr. Sass writes that poets like William Blake, Lord Byron, Shelley and Keats all suffered from manic-depressive illness
  • remove themselves from the world are more often associated with schizophrenia. Creative people with schizophrenia often experience a sense of alienation from the self, from their bodies and from the world. They become hyper-self-conscious but are able to step outside themselves, allowing a more cerebral form of creativity.

In "The Psychologist", December 2012 it reports that Simon Kyaga et al (Karolinska Instiutet, Sweden) has compared the occupation of over a million mental health patients over a 40 year period. The conclusions were that

  • "people in creative professions, such as musicians, artists and scientists, were no more likely to have a mental health diagnosis than people in non-creative professions, such as accountants, with one exception - bipolar disorder"
  • "first degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and possibly autism, were more likely than healthy controls to be in creative professions"
  • "In contrast with creative professions as a whole, focusing only on authors revealed a far stronger link with mental illness. Authors, compared with controls, were more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, drug abuse, and to take their own lives"

Some traits associated with these illnesses could be seen as useful to writers.

  • Obsession - writers need to be determined and focussed
  • A-social distancing - writers need to be observers. It may even help to lack empathy with the people being observed. Also, staying away from people frees up more time for writing. Awareness of a lack of social empathy may result in useful compensating strategies - increased observation, etc.
  • A-social self-revelation/freedom - freed from the constraints of politeness and political correctness, writers might produce more interesting work
  • Decontextualised thinking - randomness, chaotic/original thinking "outside the box", and finding unusual connections between things may help with creativity. In his 1911 book, Bleuler (who coined the term schitzophrenia) quoted this much-quoted passage that exhibits some of these traits - "I always liked geography. My last teacher in that subject was Professor August A. He was a man with black eyes. I also like black eyes. There are also blue eyes and grey eyes and other sorts, too. I have heard it said that snakes have green eyes. All people have eyes."
  • Multi-level thinking - a characteristic of some schizoid thinking is the ability to see the underlying media without inferring meaning, seeing pattern as well as plot; noticing fonts, etc.
  • Sensitivity - HSPs and "neurotic" people might see things that others miss.
  • Inhibition - control may lead to Formalism, Oulipo
  • Private language - Seeing things from a new perspective


Some of these traits suit particular movements.

  • Romanticism - trying to be at one with nature presupposes a split between the mind and the world
  • Modernism - reading Sass's "Madness and Modernism" one might easily believe that modernism is dominated by schizoids
  • Nouveau Roman - might suit the mind-blind
  • Surrealism/Dada - these schools are based on random or subconscious images
  • Confessionalism - easier if you don't care what others think of you


Once a writer is stigmatised as in some way different or impaired, solutions are offered. If nothing else, normalisation increases the chances of being published.

  • Asylum - rather than change the writer to fit society, new, surroundings can be found to suit the writer. Some art colonies (and academic worlds) are big enough to be self-contained worlds.
  • Borderline cases - those with borderline symptoms may be encouraged to be conventional. And a mad person might try to write a normal piece with a mad person as the main character
  • Drugs - Prozac may be offered to make life easier, but it may dull writing? Dr. Schuldberg suggests that drugs blunt the creativity of patients with manic-depressive illness more than that of schizophrenic patients.
  • CBT - behaviour change (e.g. being encouraged to meet people) may dull writing or use up time.

Poetry and Therapy



  • Neurotic Poets
  • "Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process" (ed Richard M. Berlin), John Hopkins UP, 2008

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