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Madness, poetry and the search for meaning

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Madness, poetry and the search for meaning

I was a young twenty-three year old graduate when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1976. I was told by clinicians that with every psychotic episode I had, I would go further into unreachable madness from which I would never recover.

The diagnosis was a death-sentence. Any thoughts of a future and a career were crushed by this awful mental illness and an equally awful assumption that my life would amount to nothing.

There was no presumption of capacity, no expectation that I would blossom like my friends around me who were getting on with their lives and forging successful careers. I felt irrelavant, and worse, invisible in the world. I describe it as walking in the shadows of others and casting none of my own. I was left with no identity, no sense of self and no hope. They were dark days.

While the voices of my madness often assailed me, another voice talked to me. It was not the voice of my madness, nor that of the great writers who I was reading about at the time,it was my own voice and it was one to which I was compelled to listen. Its language was poetry.

From some dark, distant part of my unconscious poems emerged, trailing onto blank pages with their own lively patterning. As I held the paper in my hands on which the poems were written, I came to see these as evidence that I existed; the concrete poems were proof that I was still alive. They were invaluable in helping me keep my head above the water that threatened to swamp me. But I didn’t show the poems to anyone nor did I submit them to magazines. I just left them in a drawer. However I did eventually show them to Susan Hawthorne at Spinifex Press who said she’d like to publish them in a book. And so in 1993 Poems from the Madhouse was born. I was forty years old and for me life did begin at forty. I had been given back an identity that was much more positive than my schizophrenia label; I was a poet.

While I do not have the abundant imaginative fertility of a T.S. Eliot or a Sylvia Plath, I have felt the inspiration that creativity can bring to all of us. It hasn’t cured me of my madness but it has given me a window through which I can peer into myself to understand my own complexity. It has also been a way of piercing the remote world of others who have been touched by madness.

Poetry, art and music, which are already on the margins, are safe ways of exploring the marginalised mad experience, and the artists who have done it well have spoken for all of us in an articulate and unique way. In poetry we utter the unutterable, speak the unspeakable, say the unsayable, express the inexpressible and sense the insensible. My hope for humanity lies in the creative impulse. I have faith that there is a poem in every heart. 

Writing has been a positive force in my life for many years. I have written articles, essays and a memoir in which I have interrogated not only my life with schizophrenia but my past and my family. But in the past four years I have felt as though I was touched by fire with poems pouring from my imagination like a river bursting its banks. The culmination has been two new books: The Mad Poet’s Tea Party published by Spinifex Press and Chiaroscuro published by Black Pepper Publishing.

The Mad Poet’s Tea Party is a further exploration of my madness as well as treatments and the psychiatric system. Chiaroscuro looks at the light and shade of the world through my own pereceptions coloured by own light and shade. Both books use s humour and satire to illuminate the subject matter. Both books are a search for meaning through poetry, a positive force in my life which continues to give me pleasure and purpose and a strong sense of self.

 
The Dark Hours

I love the dark hours of my being
My mind deepens into them.
- Rilke

come upon me without warning
opening wide the rifts of my mind
their insufferable nights
of reckoning and judgement
endless whimpering self-pity
of a life half lived in regret.

I spend too much time in these hours
my mind darkens into them
a long creep into a deep weeping wound
where I know myself too well
   a place of all lost dreams
   a place of ever-forming sorrows
   a place of a never-ending ache
I see too much
feel too much
labour with my inconsolable self
yield to my sombre mood.

This is a dark hour
in which my soul does not rest in peace
yet a poem is born.
© Sandy Jeffs The Mad Poet’s Tea Party, Spinifex Press 2015.
 
Chiaroscuro

I am a carnival
a rollicking sideshow

a circus
the life and soul

while in the house of mirrors
a bewildered face

illuminated by darkness
and shrouded in light

peers back at me
with untwinkling eyes

but outside and inside
the show must go on.

© Sandy Jeffs, Chiaroscuro, Black Pepper Publishing, 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

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