‘Crazed recuperant earthling’: The Use of Humour to Portray Psychosis in Three Australian Poems

By | 16 December 2015

A more forcefully impactful sense of humour is evident in Michael Dransfield’s ‘Flying’, published in Drug Poems in 1972. Dransfield, too, had direct experience with mental illness, admitting himself into psychiatric hospitals in both Canberra and Sydney, and writing extensively about madness, hallucinations, and institutionalisation. ‘Flying’ reads, in its entirety:

i was flying over Sydney
in a giant dog

things looked bad

(Dransfield 40)

The poem’s brevity, central surreal image, and final understated line contribute to its comic potential. In my experience of reading it to others it has usually been met with a surprised and appreciative laugh. Its haiku-like structure presents a sensory perception that is swiftly undercut by a concerned reflection on the speaker’s own mental state. Again, it is juxtapositions of image and tone that elicit the humour, as well as highlighting the paradoxical experience of a soaring high, and the sober realisation that one’s mind isn’t right.

The speaker’s apparent awareness of their insanity enhances the humour or perhaps even constructs it. Without this insight, the tone might be incomprehensible or tragic. This is the case for my final example, Sandy Jeffs’s ‘The Madwoman in this Poem’, which has comic appeal in its synthesis of outrageous delusions and images from contemporary pop culture. Unlike Beaver’s poem, which qualifies delusional content with phrases such as ‘appeared to’ and ‘I felt like’, Jeffs approaches the delusions as fact, adding to the entertaining mood and comic punch. Part of the poem, published in her article ‘Healing Words’, reads:

The Madwoman in this poem
transfixes in front of the TV
absorbing its many messages
Ally McBeal is her daughter
Eddie McGuire can read her mind
Thorne and Brooke are talking to her
are going to come in a helicopter
and take her to Venice to meet Brad Pitt.

The Madwoman in this poem
lives in a holy grotto
eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Pilgrims
she carries the burden of Eve
smells God in the toilet
sees the Virgin above the lintel
has given birth to the New Messiah
carries the secret of the Holy Grail in her heart
was raped by the Devil
sees maggots wriggling in her Stigmata.
The Madwoman in this poem
is sure Beethoven stole the 
nine symphonies from her
cannot walk on the cracks of the pavement
can feel spiders eating her brain
fears her head is about to explode
is going to the firing squad next morning
is a character in a Bruegel painting
is an oracle of the dead.

Sandy Jeffs often uses humour to poetically portray her schizophrenia, and does so in many poems from her collection Poems from the Madhouse (1993). On Andrew Denton’s special episode ‘Angels and Demons’, which explored the workings of the insane mind, Jeffs shared her business card that read, ‘Sandy Jeffs: poet, lunatic, insanity consultant’. Reading her poetry to a large crowd, she incited appreciative chuckles and knowing grins. For me, the power of Jeffs’s poems lies in her ability to balance the laughable and relatable with deeper, disturbing aspects of insanity. The aforementioned state in which the world becomes resplendent with meaning and personal significance is conveyed in lines, ‘Ally McBeal is her daughter / Eddie McGuire can read her mind’. Because readers identify with these characters and personalities, their inappropriate application to the poetic speaker is entertaining, and laugh-out-loud funny. Yet this humour is juxtaposed in the following stanza with composite images of religion and domestic banality (‘holy grotto’, ‘burden of Eve’, ‘God in the toilet’, ‘virgin above the lintel’). Though bizarre, the images speak to people through the language of ordinary life; rather than seeing dust or a cockroach above the lintel, there is the Virgin Mary. Once this humour is established and readers are relaxed, Jeffs increases the intensity and pace, imparting a terrifying disconnect from reality, most potently in the matter-of-fact line, ‘is going to the firing squad next morning’.

Though humour, psychosis and poetry may seem an unusual grouping, Australian poets have offered unique contributions to ongoing social, cultural and historical conversations about what psychosis is. Alongside initiatives such as ABC’s Mental As, and poetry anthologies such as Open Your Mind, the media, health groups and local literature draw upon humour to offset the anguish of psychic pain and to explain its odd contradictions. This is a crucial step in understanding the stories of the mentally unwell, and poets such as Beaver, Dransfield and Jeffs employ humorous imagery, timing and sound in a way that empowers new writers to experiment with a poetic capacity to blend terror and comedy.

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