If I didn’t think I’d be much happier…
Last Thursday was National Poetry Day, a day to celebrate everything poetic we love. Three days later, on the 10th October, was World Mental Health Day, a day to remember how important mental health is and what we can do to help those who suffer from it. I have a vested interest in both of these days, being both a sufferer of depression and anxiety, and a poet (it sounds much better than unemployed). While I am sure it was a coincidence that these days ran so close to one another, poetry and mental health are more favourable bedfellows than you may think.
Glance at a list of poets who suffered from depression or similar debilitating health problems and you realise one thing. That it is easier to find a poet who doesn’t suffer in some way than one who does. Sweeping statement? Below is a brief list of poets who have suffered from depression (this is diagnosed depression, not feeling blue).
Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Roethke, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Keats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Siegfried Sassoon, Charlotte Mew, Charles Bukowski, Anne Sexton, Tennessee Williams, János Piliinsky, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Baudelaire, Bob Dylan, Geoffrey Hill, Samuel Johnson, Les Murray, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Lord Byron
Towards the end of researching this list, I had to miss people off to keep my word count in check.
And that is just the poets. Extend that list to writers, actors, songwriters, artists and any other form of creative type and you could fill pages. But I am a poet and it is poetry’s link that interests me.
There has been a myriad of studies into the links between writing and mental health and if the science interests you then you would be better off researching those yourself. I have neither the scientific ability nor the interest to present the findings with any great skill.
For me, it is the cathartic elements of poetry I am interested in. That moment when the words on the page help you understand life that little bit better. Poetry is a beautiful way of expressing thoughts and feelings through a medium where you can still maintain a feeling of anonymity and distance.
Some poets achieve this through the use of language and metaphor, some through making up an alter-ego to live life the way they wanted to. Poets are human beings, and as such thrive on praise. We are like sponges, sucking up any positivity sent towards us and using it as lifeblood. So we have another way that poetry helps ease depression and self worth issues. By encouraging others to tell us we are good at something. I once had someone tell me that my poem helped them through a bad period of their life. Higher praise and a better compliment you could not get.
So poetry is a good way of getting your feelings out, and it is a good way of instilling self worth, but that isn’t the only way it has a link with mental health.
One of my favourite poets, Sylvia Plath, said this;
‘If I didn’t think I’d be much happier’
Thomas Gray once said this;
‘Ignorance is Bliss’
I think I am right in saying poets think a lot. Poetry affects the way you see the world in much the same way as art makes artists see in colour and strokes. Poets are always looking for a poem, and as such they approach things in a totally different (and much more intense) manner. It is a beautiful, vicious circle.
Poet thinks too much (makes himself/herself sad)
Poet transfers those thoughts down on to paper (and the depression is eased).
Next poem, start again.
So, poetry causes poets to be depressed and to cure that depression. But can reading poetry without composing it help with ones mental health? Again, studies say yes. Again, I can only write from experience. From an early age through into my thirties books and poetry have been my friends in time of need. There is something primal and wonderful about something (be it a poem, a novel, a song or a painting) evoking such an emotional response in someone yet asking for nothing in return. It is a beautiful relationship that should be treasured.
And finally we come to performance. For me, this is the pinnacle of poetry as self indulgence and catharsis. There is nothing quite like standing on a stage and bearing your heart and soul in front of people who are about to do the same. Scream, shout, laugh and cry. Just make sure the demon you had inside you is left on stage when you walk off.
I have considerable experience with mental health, both inside me and inside the people I love and call family and friends. I would always give the same advice to each person who asked for it. The very best thing you can do is read and write. It will dispel the myth that you are alone in the world and introduce you to the people who will help you the most.
I hope I have done the two subjects some form of justice.