Poetry, the creative process and mental illness

By Alex Hudson

7 February 2011 Last updated at 10:29 GMT

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.

Depression, madness and insanity are themes which have run throughout the history of poetry.

The incidence of mood disorders, suicide and institutionalisation was 20 times higher among major British and Irish poets between 1600 and 1800 according to a study by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison.

In other words, poets are 20 times more likely to end up in an asylum than the general population.

Science has puzzled to explain it. One recent study found similar brain patterns in artists at work to those of schizophrenics. Another study found that creative graduates share more personality traits with bipolar patients than less creative ones.

As far back as the mid 1800s, Emily Dickinson stated that “much madness is Divinest sense” and Edgar Allan Poe questioned “whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence”. 

 So what is it about poetry that seems to attract those more likely to suffer a mental disorder?

“If you’re a creative person, then poetry is a great format because it’s short,” says poet Luke Wright. “You can do almost anything with it and it’s not like a novel – it’s not going to take you years and you have no idea if it’s going to be any good.”

Poetry allows for the nuance of language and the different way someone sees the world.

“I think you’ve always got to be interested in a slightly different aspect of the universe to even want to pick up a pen and analyse the world through poetry,” says spoken word artist Laura Dockrill.

“I think our brains are big scribbles and always active. Because you can write about anything, you’re always on the go – trying to put something to your Velcro head hoping it will stick on.

“Part of poetry is making words do more work that they usually should do and so you’re looking for every angle of what a word might mean and so your brain starts working like as well – over-analysing everything and zooming in to minute detail.”

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