Blank Versing the Past / The Hats We Wear
‘Mental illness is...as much a part of being human as a physical disease, bereavement, or poverty, and touches many of us during our lifetimes...’ (Morrison).
It was with this sensibility that I relished opening and reading this book. I expected to gain an insight into the experiences of those who live daily with mental illness. This anthology of poetry did not disappoint, in fact it goes further, expanding on mental illness not just as a personal experience for the reader to understand but as a public health issue that demands attention.
The introduction sets the scene beautifully, it gives a historical background and context to the work carried out in Mill View Hospital and Aldrington Day Hospital making the work important not only for the community taking part but within the larger struggle to explore and understand mental ill health. The introduction, by Alan Morrison (workshop mentor) gives the anthology a solid foundation from which to build on as the work is read. He explains, illustrates and justifies creative writing as a successful means of managing mood and emotional ‘disorders’ with the clear authority of one who has studied, practiced and lived what is spoken. This is reiterated by Jan Hill’s introduction to Aldrington Day Hospital Poetry Group who, in solidifying the case for writing therapy, clearly explains the mechanism by which it serves this purpose. In the introduction to the second edition, Morrison goes on to place the work in the setting of modern British politics and makes a fair and passionate case for the detrimental implication of current governmental policy on the work to effectively manage mental illness.
The work was as wide and varied as each personality that contributed, it challenges common held beliefs about the perception of mental state by those experiencing mental ill health.
The Aldrington Day Hospital Poetry group is a collection of work by four separate women, each with a distinct voice. The pieces were warm, thoughtful with sparks of humour. The Mill View Hospital collection has more contributors and provides a different experience. Both collections are complementary and work as one piece, despite occupying two separate spaces divided by a few pages of art work by participants. Together, the collective work challenged the idea of ‘sickness’ in mental health issues and remoulded my perception of the very meaning for those who are labelled ‘sick’;
I’m watching the bumblebee sitting on my hand
it looks real but it’s my last hallucination
gone are the wizards in the foliage and gone are my animals,
past and present
who visited me in my room when times were bleak
Alley Alabaster (an extract)
A stomach full of pills plus one psychiatrist
Is guaranteed to send you right round the twist.
Julie Whitby (an extract)
The work is truly rich, with various structures used, reflecting the ordered exercises used to structure the creative space. There are verses, long prose, haikus and acrostics. The work is often poignant, occasionally amusing, it beautifully articulates the complexity of experiencing mentally ill health and in doing so, the complication in its management.
However, the anthology is more than a simple lesson; it is involving and dynamic with images and scenes painted in crisp clear prose. There is a mixture of words carefully placed together such that they are experiences to be shared rather than understood. I enjoyed ‘looking’ at objects differently, not as through the ‘touched’ mind of a pained artist, but through the eyes of another’s life experiences.
This collections from the start, invites the reader to share the experience of marginalised members of society and gain an insight into their experience. Few times, I was reminded that this ‘sharing’ was born from an active, organised therapy;
At times the very act of writing seemed to be driving me insane and at others, provided me with the only lifeline available.
Steve Thorne (an extract)
The work presses home the need for management beyond pharmaceuticals; it actively demonstrates the benefits of creative therapies.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read; it was an education in addition to being engaging. It exploits the freedom allowed by poetry to transmit a level of understanding beyond the jargon of colourless factual text. It articulated complicated thoughts, perceptions and emotions and made them accessible, illustrating the commonality of shared human experiences. This collection validated the importance of emotional intelligence, ‘the heart as a thinking knowing organ’ (Morrison).
Reviewed by Chisom Emecheta
Final year medical student
- Creativity and Madness
Reference: Alan, Morrison. 2009. Blank Versing the Past / The Hats We Wear. Aldrington Day Hospital Poetry Group / Mill View Hospital Creative Writing Group, 2009
- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Monday 21st May 2012
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- Antisocial Personality Disorder
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- Criminally induced insanity
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- Tourettes Syndrome