The word ‘psychosis’ is derived from Greek, and etymologically means ‘life of the spirit’, or ‘to give animation to soul and mind’. This sense of ‘life’ or ‘animation’ has manifested through literatures of madness in a plethora of movements and forms. We’ve had the comically deluded protagonist of Don Quixote; the lunatic fool on the Renaissance stage; the manic villain in the superhero film; and, in the contemporary Australian context, caricatures of madness in films such as Cosi and Mental. Yet when it comes to poetry, it seems that portrayals of psychosis have traditionally shunned humour in favour of more sombre, serious meditations. Psychotic or ‘mad’ poetic speakers have provided insight into Romantic, spectacular visions (Blake); relayed the horrors of shell shock from war (Sassoon); confessed disturbed states of mind (Lowell); and remarked on the madness of entire generations (Ginsberg). Working within this Western tradition, Australia has produced poets who have had personal experience of mental illness, such as Francis Webb and Kate Jennings, as well as poets who practice psychiatry, such as Craig Powell and Jennifer Harrison. These writers have poignantly depicted the mentally ill mind, often relying on haunting imagery or disturbing metaphors to represent the inner lives of psychiatric ward patients, doctors, and visitors. In this piece, I want to focus on three poems that use humour to discuss psychosis: Bruce Beaver’s ‘XXVI’, Michael Dransfield’s ‘Flying’ and Sandy Jeffs’ ‘The Madwoman in this Poem’. Humour in these texts allows the poets to elucidate complex and humane aspects of the psychotic condition, and to restore a sense of voice to those who have suffered from a fractured mind.
Kylie Valentine, author of Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry and Modernist Literature, pointed out that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the experience of psychiatric illness, as opposed to its appearance, began to be described (Valentine 101). It is this personal narrative that Sandy Jeffs seeks to rediscover in her poetry:
I aim to reclaim the word mad for those of us who live with the terrors of our madness every day, and it is through poetry, a language imbued with endless possibilities to peel away the layers of the myriad meanings society has developed over time, that I speak. (Jeffs 36)
The ‘endless possibilities’ of poetry and the ‘myriad meanings’ of language are traits shared with psychosis, which theorists Darian Leader and Louis A. Sass have identified as a strange paradox whereby the world can appear resplendent with meaning, yet can also rapidly become devoid of meaning. In the poems below, this experience is conveyed in language that produces laughter, and is enabled by the poem’s unique sensitivity to sound, imagery and timing.
Bruce Beaver (1928-2004) suffered from what is now termed bipolar disorder and was willing to write about it. John Tranter stated in Beaver’s obituary that his illness ‘was both a burden and a strange blessing’ (Tranter 26). In his seminal collection Letters to Live Poets, the poem 26 (‘XXVI’) describes a speaker recuperating in B Ward from ‘assaults of the mind’, reading poetry and being constantly challenged in conversation by a fellow patient. The second and third stanzas describe an uncanny moment when the speaker spots a UFO:
One morning early, about seven, the sun rising (it was midwinter and fine weather), I looked out from the ward window over the stacked roofs and the misty air, up into the height of sky and saw what appeared to be a flying saucer. It glittered and manoeuvred in a soundless flight. It rose and fell and doubled back upon its tracks, veering to right and left. I whispered my wonderment to myself And felt my heart exulting. I sat up and let my bare feet hang happily over the side of the bed. I felt like jumping up and down in front of the slowly waking wards, shouting ‘They’ve come! They’ve come at last!’ (Beaver, 51-2)
Beaver creates in this stanza a charming childishness, with feet hanging ‘happily over the side of the bed’ and employing an awestruck tone in spotting what ‘appeared’ to be a flying saucer. The speaker displays an awareness of the fact that he is hallucinating, an awareness that is enhanced by the past tense voice (these are not beliefs the speaker currently has). It is in the third and final stanza that, paradoxically, a tone of sudden seriousness highlights the absurdity of the delusion and its underlying humour:
I understood the cargo cult now. I was a one-man committee of welcome, a genuine crazed recuperant earthling. I wanted a ride in the saucer, to communicate resourcefully with the calm-eyed Venusians. But as I watched I recalled the undergraduate. I remembered there were such things as birds, that flights of birds rose, fell and doubled back upon themselves, their wings flashing and glittering in dawn light. And as I remembered I watched the UFO become a far off sun-touched flight of pigeons. I was glad then that I’d kept it all to myself. But another part of me still went leaping from ward to ward crying ‘They’ve come! They’ve come! They’re here at last!’ (Beaver 51-2)
At the beginning of the third stanza, alliterative ‘c’ sounds (‘cargo’, ‘cult’, ‘committee’, ‘crazed’, ‘communicate’) sharply accentuate the speaker’s delusion. Verse that could otherwise be read as prosaic narrative evokes a sonic pattern, enhancing our amused response to the false belief. However, the lines that relate the speaker’s intermittent lucidity are comparatively euphonious and smooth: ‘their wings flashing and glittering in dawn light.’ Juxtaposing style and content, the speaker swings from sanity to insanity, creating an incongruity that is playful and jocular. The paradox of both believing that one has been targeted by extra-terrestrials, yet also recognising that it is a mere flock of birds, works to illustrate the dramatic vacillations of psychosis, as well as the droll nature of its account. Nicollette Stasko notes that Beaver was a student of the psychologist and writer Carl Jung, who believed that only paradox can comprehend the fullness of life (Stasko 400). In this case, the ambiguities of delusion manifest in not only the message of the poetry, but also in the tonal shifts between elevated mania and composed mental clarity.