Depression is inevitably a depressing subject to think on, and despite great advances in its understanding, there are still far too many black dogs on the prowl. Nor is it something one can easily make jokes about, if for no other reason than that those who most understand the humour are in no mood to laugh. But the romantic image persists the glums is a vital component of genius, that Gustav Mahler and V.V. Gogh were only so great because they were so low, or that anyone who leapt out of bed this morning and sang in the shower will never amount to anything.
Of course, poetry has always had its sad-sacks, and sometimes they have simply been quiet, thoughtful types who tended not to smile so often. But there have also been characters who rolled a double-one in brain chemistry and no amount of telling them to cheer up is ever going to help. After all, what else is down-at-mouth Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven but one man’s memories about his lost love opening up a pit beneath him where his black-wingèd gloom literally glowers over him.
Nothing depressing about this week’s workshop, even when the subject matter took a more serious turn. Doig Simmonds imagined a loss of innocence and a body the colour of iron, and Alan Chambers has been rummaging through a cupboard and turning up the most unexpected bric-a-brac. John Hurley recounted a step-nephew with a lazy attitude and a CV unblemished by success, while Martin Choules has been foretelling the end of the world, and having a cracking time of it. Daphne Gloag has been finding elements of the four elements everywhere, while Peter Francis has been reading some old Scots verse by both candlelight and computer screen, while the light that shone on Pet Francis’ short, tight piece has revealed a rainbow of connotations. The Moon loomed large in Nick Barth’s living room, while Michael Harris has been out in the suburbs spotting tractors.
Needless to say, it is a mistake to assume that serotonin-shyness in the brain leads to being monolithically mopey or incapable of brightening up when the stars and the neuro-receptors align. So the archives reveal it was with Sylvia Plath when she used to attend in the early 1960s. This was the period of her most creative writing, bringing us The Colossus, Ariel and The Bell Jar, but also her most bleak. However, since she would of course only attend when she felt more upbeat, so the group’s memory of her was as a slightly nervous American lady who would always apologise for not wanting to read one of her heavyweight, gut-wrought pieces. Instead, she would inevitably declare that what she brought was “just a bit of fun” as she passed around her latest limerick or nonsense verse. Rumour also has it that she loved a pint of Guinness and a dirty joke in the Red Lion afterwards, though this seems less likely.
But it just goes to show that depression isn’t endless blues without the odd outburst of pop, and that its sufferers cannot sometimes grab that black dog by the collar, snap on a lead and take the damn thing out for a jolly good walk.