On Saturday (18th May 2013) I attended the 4th International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine, organised by the Hippocrates Initiative, a collaborative medical humanities venture founded by Donald Singer and Michael Hulse from the University of Warwick.
My poem, Artificial Rupture of Membranes, received a commendation in the NHS category of the 2013 Hippocrates Prize for poetry on a medical subject. A fascinating day of talks and Q&A sessions preceded the announcement of the winners. A spot of networking and a glass of wine was then followed by a very nice dinner in good company.
An announcement was made regarding the next event: a think-tank weekend in Venice on the 21st/22nd September 2013, which is intended to enable discussion with international colleagues about future directions, including the work of the Hippocrates Press. The press has published the annual competition anthology, and this year’s symposium saw the launch of its first other publication: Born in the NHS by Wendy French and Jane Kirwan.
A further announcement was made for the Warwick Review, which will be featuring the subject of poetry and medicine in its September edition.
Antonis A. Kousoulis from Imperial College, London, began the day by talking about the plague of Thebes, an epidemic described in Sophocles’ drama Oedipus Rex. The famous storyline, in which Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, is set against this dramatic backdrop. It was postulated that this plague, which is likely to have actually occurred, was caused by the pathogen Brucella abortus, due in part to the references made to women giving birth to dead babies. Dr Kousoulis felt that this text offered one of the most lyrical descriptions of plague in existence in the literary canon.
As the day progressed I became increasingly interested in the emerging themes relating to how poetry and medicine might be connected. For some, as for Dr Kousoulis, the poem was primarily a vehicle for the transmission of information. That is, the subject matter or content, and what the text said about it, was primary.
Four such themes uniting the disciplines of poetry and medicine were identified by the organisers*, including medicine as inspiration for the writings of poets. This is a broad theme in itself, as it encompasses both poems written on medical subjects by those who have some knowledge of these (for the purpose of transmitting that knowledge – including concepts and ethical dilemmas), and poems that express the emotion elicited by interaction with medical practice in all its forms.
Expressing the powerful emotions elicited through interactions with medicine and the medical system, including the health challenges leading up to these interactions, is by far the most common function of poems written in this niche sub-genre. Many of the winning and commended poems emerged from individual experiences of sickness and medical care, including those written by healthcare practitioners. So for many readers and writers of poetry, the form is primarily a vehicle for the crystallisation and transmission of emotion. Some of the best poems emerge directly from a love of language itself, and medicine certainly provides fertile linguistic ground in this regard (I have heard it said that medical students have to learn more new words than those studying foreign languages, and it’s interesting that the Hippocrates Prize anthology includes a glossary, to translate the particular language), but the very best poems even then remain the ones that also manage to pack an emotive punch: the ones that get you.
A brief diversion and comment here on confession. Most of the poems presented were confessional in nature, in that they described direct and often very personal human experiences. Confessional poetry is often used as a derogatory term in certain poetic circles. Perhaps this has something to do with Catholicism, but in the Buddhist circles I move in, the sharing of personal stories is not only encouraged but actually enabled through a formalised system of discussion meetings and the publication of “experiences”. I remain of the opinion that sharing one’s own experiences with others, in the hope that they may benefit from that sharing (perhaps by identification with the narrator or simply by feeling less alone in the world) is a basic act of giving for human beings: social animals who are fundamentally related and interdependent; and if the sharer feels lighter in the process, so much the better.
That does not mean of course that it is okay to write bad, emotive poetry: a splurge on the page is always a huge poetic turn-off. It may also fail to achieve the desired transmission, or punch. Relatively little comment was made at the symposium on poetic technique or artistry. Poetry as pure art was not much discussed. However one talk that interested me particularly did acknowledge the importance – albeit utilitarian – of aesthetics, even when the reader is unaware of the devices used.
Anne Hudson Jones, Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of Texas, spoke about using poetry in the education of medical students and other healthcare professionals. Poems are chosen (and to be effective, they need to be aesthetically and technically good poems) that elicit an emotional response and facilitate reflective practice within a group setting. Writing poetry may help students connect with and process their emotional responses to experiences in a constructive way. Developing such a practice, it was suggested, may help prevent burnout and other negative outcomes for healthcare professionals, including substance misuse and suicide.
Lots of other interesting speakers and ideas were present and in circulation, but I think I’ve written enough for now. To conclude my thoughts, poetry and medicine interact in a number of ways, but these seem to me to be the three main themes:
- Medicine provides a rich linguistic soil from which aesthetically interesting, and even brilliant, poems may grow.
- Poetry may act as a vehicle for the documentation of medical facts and phenomena through both historical and contemporary narratives.
- Poetry is a particularly appropriate genre for the crystallisation and transmission of emotion related to specific experiences. It may be valuable for both patients and healthcare professionals – through both the reading and writing of poems – as a means by which individuals may process, share and move on from difficult times.
[*These were: 1) medicine as inspiration for the writings of poets; 2) effects of poetic creativity on the experience of patients, their families, friends and carers; 3) poetry in the education of health professionals; 4) poetry as therapy]