Book review

BEYOND BEDLAM

[Edited by Ken Smith & Matthew Sweeney Anvil 7.95]

The anthology is subtitled 'Poems written out of mental distress'. Of course it is disturbing.

Its publication was timed to coincide with the 750th anniversary of the original Bedlam (Bethlem Royal Hospital) where inmates used to be exhibited for the amusement of visiting gentry. As you pass along its passages you get more than a whiff of the suffering inflicted by mental illness and its institutions.

The cannon includes all the usual suspects: Lowell, Clare, Plath, Bunyan, Graves, Pound. Then you spot the name of a lesser-known writer you sat with in a pub after the poetry gig after the breakdown or the botched suicide.

Martin Brownlee's 'On the Run from Tooting Bec Hospital' gives a taste of that moonlight flit up the Balham High Road made by many in their NHS pyjamas. Tooting's grim Victorian fortress was demolished in the eighties and now so many 'sleep in the park, just another dosser.' as a result of government policy.

Richard McKane's translation of verses written more than 20 years ago in a Russian mental hospital, gives a reminder of the systematic repression that disintegrated into just as cruel a vacuum after the collapse of the Soviet infrastructure.

The editors' introduction tells us: 'Poets are 30 times more likely to undergo a depressive illness than the rest of the population, and 20 times more likely to be committed to an asylum.' And yet the project emerged from patients in the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospitals writing verse for therapeutic reasons.

Four mental health charities will benefit from its royalties.

Michael Burgess 1998

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