Creative Activity English Faculty Item

Poetry Teaches Us About Illness

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Written by Jose Rodriguez

For many readers, poetry is a place to visit and find solace or comfort. But for others, a poem is a place to reflect, as Amanda North, lecturer in the Department of English, contends in her new article “The Ruin of Madness” published in Construction Literary Magazine. North argues that lyric poetry works to invite the reader into an empty space and rebuild it by considering their own lives, experiences, and ideas. For North, poems are fragmented places or ruins.

North explores how three confessional poets from the 1900s channeled through their lyrical poetry their experiences with madness, uncertain and misinformed treatment, and catastrophic physical side effects.

“During the mid-twentieth century, gender roles were suffocating and madness was treated violently within the medical community. Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath asked something very specific of the reader: their lyric poetry was a ruin of the named mad body and it asked the reader to fill in the lost and forgotten spaces,” she writes.

North argues that these poets sought to find freedom and reclaim their ruined bodies through writing. “Their lyrical poems ask the reader to co-create a new naming of the body in order to free it of containment.”

North investigates the idea of the mad body as a public spectacle. The medical community named, diagnosed, and treated the insane. In this way, physicians and medical professionals confined the people that they were trying to help.  Poets like Anne Sexton used their poetry to reclaim their bodies and rebel against inhumane treatments. “Madness is the inversion of socially constructed ideologies. Anne Sexton’s ‘The Sun’ is a lyrical exploration portraying madness as the inversion to the normalized medical gaze,” North writes.

The medical community and society overall have come a long way in how they view and treat mental illness. Still, literature has much to teach about how, in life, we occupy spaces that are foreign, mutilated, and unfamiliar.

About the author

Jose Rodriguez

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