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The poems of Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), Robert Lowell (1917-77), John Burnside (b. 1955), Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), Stevie Smith (1902-71), Anne Sexton (1928-74), John Berryman (1914-72), and John Clare (1793-1864) are good sources of material that deal with emotional distress and its manifestations, consequences and clinical management.

Administering madness

Elizabeth Jennings' poems, 'A Mental Hospital Sitting Room', 'Sequence in Hospital' and 'Night Sister' deal with the theme of the hospital environment, the waiting rooms and wards, and the patience of nurses.6 The poem 'Visitors' by Robert Lowell deals with how mental health legislation is administered by describing the intrusion by two policemen into his home to detain and remove him to hospital.7 The poem 'The Asylum Dance' by John Burnside deals with one of the many rituals of the nineteenth-century asylum, the annual dance.8

These poems all illustrate aspects of the patient's experience of what it is like to receive care within the mental health system. Except for the poem by John Burnside, they are written from the patient's perspective and draw attention, as only poetry can, to minute, almost negligible details, in order to emphasise or to make fresh our comprehension of the particular situations under scrutiny. An example of this is Lowell's description of the policemen as 'fat beyond the call of duty', hereby hinting at the excesses of power and coercion in the process of detention and removal.


The poems by Ivor Gurney, 'To God', 'The Shame', and 'An Appeal to Death' are expressive of anguish, emotional pain, despair and the wish for death.9 They are direct and speak to us from a place of utter darkness. Stevie Smith, in 'Not Waving but Drowning', 'The Hostage' and 'Come Death' also speaks from a desolate place but the language is whimsical, quirky and comical by turn.10 This allows for the student to see the varying registers in which anguish can be declaimed.

The poem 'Eleven Addresses to the Lord' by John Berryman11 and Elizabeth Jennings' 'Michelangelo's Sonnets'6 are in the form of prayers and demonstrate how despair can be communicated through prayer thereby highlighting the desperation implicit in despair. Finally, John Clare's, 'I Am' is an example of the poetic voice still aspiring to life and self-esteem even in the throes of despondency.12

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