1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email

Discuss in our forum

McLean Hospital: Poetry on the Psychiatric Ward

by Doug Holder

By

In the winter the view from McLean Hospital can be quite beautiful. From its perch on top of a hill over the sedate town of Belmont, Massachusetts, the alluring sparkle of the city lights of Boston creates a brilliant panorama stretching across the horizon. One would not ordinarily look for such a scene at a psychiatric hospital. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that on these grounds poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton found comfort and even inspiration. Here they were safe from the manic highs and lows, the tumult, and the stresses of the city only five miles away.

Times have changed since that august group of poets paced the halls at McLean Hospital. The population of the hospital is dramatically different now than in Anne Sexton’s and Lowell’s time. Lowell describes the patrician atmosphere at the hospital in his poem “Waking In The Blue”:

What use is my sense of humor?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties
once a Harvard all-American fullback
if such were possible!
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties...

A kingly granite profile in crimson golf-cap
worn all day, all night
he thinks only of his figure
of slimming on sherbert and ginger-ale
more cut off from words than a seal.
Lowell’s piece describes life at Mclean more than 40 years ago. It’s very different on the wards of the hospital now: we have the homeless, Medicare clients, along with students and the occasional VIP.

On one unit where I worked, a unit with acutely ill patients, a poetry group thrived on Friday evenings. For 10 years I worked with patients in poetry groups--a sometimes frustrating but often rewarding effort. In the first group I ran, I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” I thought this haunting cry of a poem would act as a stimulant for discussion. Unfortunately, the patients did not want to hear Ginsberg’s lament about the “best minds of his generation lost to madness.” I remember one patient telling me bluntly, “Why do I have to hear this? I live it.”

There were other mishaps in the early days of the group. Once I read a poem that concerned chickens. A young woman suddenly became hysterical and ran from the group in a fit of tears. The rest of the patients in the group followed her in support. It seems that the girl associated fowl with a particurally painful episode in her life. Needless to say, I had some explaining to do to my supervisor.

I also remember more hopeful reactions to the poems I read. A clinically depressed Harvard grad student thanked me for a particular passage from a poem, because it shed light on his situation and gave him a degree of hope. An almost mute patient suddenly began to wax eloquent after I read a stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland.” One thing is certain: the right poem at the right time can certainly evoke strong reactions and can even act as a balm in a time of great stress.

The poems I read in these groups were always quite accessible. I am an avid reader and contributor to the small press, so I used little magazines like Ibbetson Street, Poesy, Spare Change News and others to good effect. I encouraged patients to bring in their favorite poems, or ones they wrote themselves. I encouraged all members of the group to be supportive and positive toward each other’s work. Over the years I developed a community of patient poets at McLean.

For the last year or so I have worked in a different setting and different capacity at the hospital. I don’t run a formal poetry group currently, but I still take patients to readings at Out of The Blue Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts when time permits. And still, when I walk around the grounds of McLean I am often greeted by former poetry group members, “Hey Doug, when’s the next poetry group?”

~Doug Holder

This article originally appeared in The Boston Poet in 1997. It has since been updated and later appeared in Kaleidoscope Magazine. Doug Holder sent it to About Poetry in response to our blog posting, “Poetry Cures Ills of the Heart, Mind and Body” & very kindly gave permission for us to republish it.

He also graciously consented to give us two poems for the About Poetry library:

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.