School of Humanities



Amy Hilhorst

Start date

Mar 2013

Submission date

Mar 2017

Amy Hilhorst

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Poetics of Unreality: Psychic Disturbance in the work of Three Australian Poets


This thesis considers three Australian poets – Francis Webb (1925-73), Bruce Beaver (1928-2004), and Michael Dransfield (1948-73) – exploring the way their work conveys the experience of losing touch with reality. In addressing this issue, I consider the relationship between lyric poetry and mental illness, particularly as this relationship took shape in Australia between 1950 and 1980, when these poets were writing.

In chapter One, I analyse Francis Webb’s portrayal of the schizophrenic condition as involving the failure and reparation of language. Chapter Two considers the way that Bruce Beaver’s poems explore the condition currently known as type I bipolar disorder in terms of a dialectic of pleasure and pain. Chapter Three examines the poetry of Michael Dransfield and how his poems display a poetic subject—the speaking voice in the lyric poem—who is caught paradoxically between the sensation of omnipotence and imminent collapse.

Why my research is important

Psychically disturbed states have been analysed in disciplines such as psychiatry, psychology, health sciences, sociology, anthropology and history, but these often focus on the causes, prevention, treatment, and social context of the illness, rather than voicing the experience of such conditions.

Like a person experiencing a psychotic state, poems are deeply sensitive to linguistic patterning – such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and other sonic effects. Poetry therefore has, I argue, a unique capacity to convey what it is like to lose touch with reality.

While “madness”, insanity and psychosis have been explored in scholarship of Romantic poetry, Beat poetry, American confessional poetry, and elsewhere, there is yet to be an extensive study in modern Australian poetics of the relationship between poetry and disturbed mental states. This thesis seeks to address this gap, and will be of interest to scholars in medical humanities, literary studies of mental illness, and Australian poetics.


  • Australian Postgraduate Award
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