The Woman Who Did Not Go Mad Because of Poetry

Jane Burn

‘In other words, poets are 20 times more likely to end up in an asylum than the general population.’ So says Alex Hudson, in their BBC news article, ‘Poetry, the creative process and mental illness’. Which asylum, I find myself wondering? I had a picture in my mind of Hudson visiting some terrible blank-walled, horror-movie castle, each cell filled with poets. Poets who had tangled with one too many villanelles, or tried that bit too hard to construct the perfect iambic line.

Don’t misinterpret my rather poor attempt at humour above. I do not for one second wish to trivialise mental health. The quote made me want to defend poetry as a life-saving resource, a vital part of our mental health, our survival, a means of expression when it seems as if everything else has failed, a pleasure, a challenge, a way to understand, a way to speak, a way to be heard, a way to be seen, a way to record all emotions, a joy.

I got angry when I read this article. It reminded me of that rubbish poster some folk used to pin up in the office in the 80’s/90’s – you don’t have to be mad to work here, but if you are it helps. Over the years, I have discovered the insults that hurt me most, and are flung at me at times of personal difficulty or distress, are “you’re mad” or “you’re mental”. I have done my best to overcome the eternal fear that I am naturally in the wrong or too “thick” to write a response. I deliberated for weeks about whether I would find the courage to offer a response to this New Defences of Poetry submissions call. This is my internalised ableism. Yet this part of poetry is something I feel I can defend, at least when it comes to myself.

When Hudson’s article was published I was 40 years old and utterly worn out with decades of misdiagnosis and incorrect medication and therapy. Medical professionals decided that I had depression. Post Natal Depression. General Anxiety Disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (and do please forgive me my use of that awful word, disorder). I was given Sertraline and Prozac. It never worked – I never “got better” and no wonder. You can’t “get better” from who you are. I was born autistic. No pill is going to “cure” it and poetry did not “cause” it.

Perhaps (like me) a poet’s writing comes from their primal urge to articulate pain, or the pain of their circumstances. I think, for one example, of the Victorian working-class poets who were denied education, worked gruelling hours (that still left them in utter poverty), lived in terrible housing conditions, suffered violation and went without medical care. They wrote because there were so many parts of their lives they wanted to give voice to – to alleviate suffering, to show the world that they existed, that despite the massive inequality of their circumstances, they had intelligence, brilliance and talent.

I think of poets like Ann Yearsley (who wrote in the 1700’s), described by Robert Southey, Esq., as a ‘poor illiterate woman’. Her ‘expressions of misery, which seemed to fill the head and mind’ were found to make her poetry more ‘interesting’ (125). It wasn’t poetry that drove her into such distress – it was the unbearable trials of her life. In those times, it was rare for a woman’s voice to be recorded at all.

Women haven’t just had to deal with poverty and backbreaking work. We have had (and still have) to deal with the patriarchy too. In his 1987 anthology, The Poorhouse Fugitives, Brian Maidment wrote, ‘I have not been able to discover, either any substantial body of work by women writers within the artisan context, though this is an area where further research might be done’ (18). Thankfully such vital research was done later, in the anthology, Working-Class Women Poets in Victorian Britain, edited by Florence S. Boos.

It is being denied, through cruel inequality, the fulfilling of one’s potential that is too heavy to bear. One of the (numerous) heartbreaking parts of Boos’s book is the discovery that so many of these women were refused help from places like the Royal Literary Fund (Ruth Wills, Marion Bernstein and Ellen Forrester to name a few) and ended up in the poorhouse (32). Ending up in the poorhouse is a fear too overwhelming to be borne, then and now. I suppose someone could argue that this was so long ago. Time is completely irrelevant, as the terrible reality of these circumstances linger over too many of us still.

Imagine being too afraid, unable, or feel too overwhelmed by the idea of filling in grant/award/residency application forms. Imagine filling them in knowing they will fail because you just cannot seem to use the right terminology, because this is a skill you have not been taught or do not have. Imagine the wonderful, fantastical idea that you could actually scrape a living through your poetry if only you knew how to tick the right boxes. Imagine failing every time and feeling the doors to paradise clang shut, in front of your face, time and time again.

You return to the daily grind and poetry seems to be slipping further from your grasp. This has caused so much more distress and affected my mental health much more than poetry itself ever has. I write as if I have had some kind of epiphany. It’s not poetry. It’s the walls that have been built around it. They, forgive the awful term, are what will drive you mad.

You work those shitty jobs. You raise a family, be responsible for the dull day-to-day running of a house. You find every hour eaten up with earning a living, childcare/being a carer, with poo, vomit, laundry, supermarket shopping and potatoes. I am always writing about the various preparations of bloody potatoes. They have become a metaphor for my life. I seem to spend every day fighting against the “traditional” roles my husband and the demands of family seem to determined to fit me into. I live a limited life and every year I feel as if autism and responsibility closes me further in.

I write about what I know and I wince every time I think of Theodore Roethke saying, ‘The charges most frequently leveled against poetry by women are lack of range – in subject matter, in emotional tone… the spinning-out; the embroidering of trivial themes… running between the boudoir and the altar… lamenting the lot of the woman; caterwauling; writing the same poem about fifty times’ (246). I think of this and it makes me incredibly cross. I think of Oliver Thring’s article about Sarah Howe and the #derangedpoetesses backlash (Evans-Bush). I think of books like Deborah Alma’s #MeToo anthology. The poetry inside it wasn’t written because poets are “mad”. It was written because the truth of abuse is valid and needs to be heard. I think of all these things and my pen does not caterwaul. It roars.

Hudson’s article asks, ‘is it mental illness that drives people to art or art that drives people to mental illness?’ and trots out mentions of Keats, Sylvia Plath and Van Gogh in order to prove the point. Perhaps, like me, a poet’s personal circumstances have become a kind of trap. Perhaps the lack of financial, practical and emotional help exacerbates issues with mental health. Perhaps, like me, poets have turned to poetry and art when all other means of expression seemed to fail. Perhaps, like me, they are driven to do it because it is the very essence of who they are.

Poetry will not put me in this ‘asylum’. I have poetry to thank for saving my life, pretty much every single day. I am working-class, I am a woman and I am autistic. My primary school education was a blank and secondary school was just a matter of survival. The rest of my life has been a battle to educate myself, find as much free or low-cost teaching as I have been able to and at last, in my 40’s, discover the courage to be the poet that I have always wanted to be.

Autism has led to a rejection of me by my parents and siblings, with whom I have had no contact with for more than a decade. Autism makes it very difficult for me to make or maintain friendships. I live beneath the great weight of feeling that nobody loves or likes me, that I am terrible to live with. Poetry has become my mother and father, my sister and brother. Poetry is my best friend. It absorbs the highs and lows, the happiness and heartbreak and takes the punishment that comes from the deepest chasms of my soul.

It never judges. It never tells me I am wrong. Some days I feel as if it saves me from myself. It’s patient and it’s a whirlwind. It makes me strong. It stretches out its bright, blank paper arms and holds onto my mind. “When you are ready,” it says, “tell me anything.”

Works Cited

Alma, Deborah (ed.). #MeToo: A Women’s Poetry Anthology. Fairacre Press, 2018.

Boos, Florence S. (ed.). Working-Class Women Poets in Victorian Britain. Broadview Press, 2008.

Evans-Bush, Kate. ‘T.S. Eliot Prize Row: Is Winner Too Young, Beautiful – and Chinese?’. Guardian, 23 January 2016. Accessed 05.06.2021.

Hudson, Alex. ‘Poetry, the creative process and mental illness’. BBC, 07 February 2011. Accessed 06.04.2021.

Maidment, Brian (ed.). The Poorhouse Fugitives: Self-taught Poets and Poetry in Victorian Britain. Fyfield,1992.

Southey, Robert. ‘Introduction’ to Attempts in Verse, by John Jones, an Old Servant with Some Account of the Writer, Written by Himself and An Introductory Essay on the Lives and Works of our Uneducated Poets, by Robert Southey. John Murray, 1830.

Roethke, Theodore. ‘The Poetry of Louise Bogan’. An excerpt from his 1960 Hopwood Lecture at The University of Michigan. Michigan Quarterly Review, 6 (1964) 246-51.

Jane Burn
 is a Pushcart and Forward Prize nominated, award-winning, working class, bi, neurodivergent poet and illustrator who lives in a wooden off-grid cottage in Northumberland. Her poems are published in many magazines and anthologies and her next collection, Be Feared, will be published in November by Nine Arches Press. She is currently studying for an MA in Writing Poetry at Newcastle University.