David Tait was kind enough to share this with me via Facebook recently, a wonderful and elitist idea that Alex Hudson at the BBC has on poetry called Poetry, the creative process and mental illness.
I have no problems with the BBC, I have worked for them as a journalist, I have broadcast for them as a poet and I will continue to support them in all their arts output. My problem lies with Alex Hudson, the writer of the article. It is a universal problem with the explosion of multimedia that it has had an impact on quality and research. I do have sympathies for Alex Hudson, I know deadlines are often tight, often there and then but this is an ill informed piece of writing. It is contrite, it panders to the image or poets being somehow sensitive, somehow strange, or in this case, somehow mentally ill and far from normal. I accept that poetry is great for therapy, it can help individuals get a perspective on their lives but it is not representative of the industry or of all poets.
To give you an idea at the arse achingly plundering of hear say and gossip that abounds in this article, you only need to start with the opening of it: ‘Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know” according to one lover, Keats was driven to distraction by obsessive love and Sylvia Plath ended her own life.’ This is dumbing down on an epic scale, it is devoid of facts and an oversimplification of matters in an area that does not require it. Save us from the dumbing down of poetry, of all poetry! Maybe Hudson would prefer if Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner was a taxi driver from Ipswich, that Ted Hughes Crow was a flat, dead pigeon on an estate road, that Sylivia Plath’s Daddy had been more understanding and given her hugs (I must admit the first two do intrigue me). The Byron quote used by Hudson is from Lady Caroline Lamb, a writer in her own right and not just a notch on Byron’s bed post. Yet, Hudson in his article ignores her and of course the wonderful novel, Glenarvon, whose hero is a thin veiled Byron. Hudson assumes Byron is mad, which he wasn’t (well, not until syphillis took hold and that is not mental illness but a terrible disease). Byron was a product of a radical era and very moralistic (if you don’t believe me, read Don Juan). His morals may have been different from our own but they were still morals. Keats died of consumption and though he may have been driven to distraction, it is not mental illness. Sylvia Plath was diagnosed with bipolar depression, this article therefore suggests that anyone who suffers or has a bout of depression is mentally ill. I had a nervous breakdown in my early twenties, suffered from depression, and wrote a raft of shit, none of it is published, none of it ever will be. I am a writer, not a case number. Byron rewrote extensively as all poets do, his mental health does not define who he is, the reader does that. Obviously, for Alex Hudson post modernism, intertextuality and the last 250 years of literature has skipped him by and soon we will all be classified as insensitive cruel animals and taken to the nuthouse to be whipped.
The use of normal is the final nail in this article. Creativity does not equal madness. We are a creative species, from the guy in the pub whose figured out how to win on the slot machine to woman who sings whilst facing up an entire aisle in a supermarket. It is our ability to imagine, to daydream, to think beyond ourselves that makes us creative and makes us anything but normal. We are miraculous as a species in both our ability to be cohesive and are ability for cruelty. Yet, there is no article by Alex Hudson discussing the role of poets in this. For every mad or bad poet there are thousands who write, who continue to write exceptional poetry and live lives that can never be defined as ordinary or normal. This world has never been that.