On Tuesday 5 April I had the pleasure of running a workshop on poetry and medicine for a class of 25 Medical Humanities students at Imperial College.
After a crash course in poetic terminology including iambs, iambic pentameter, end-stopped lines, enjambment, caesuras, run-ons, and rhyme (end rhyme, slant rhyme,) We compared and discussed three pairs of poems:
- Theodore Roethke, ‘Epidermal Macabre,’ and
Robin Robertson, ‘Making the Green One Red’
- Jo Shapcott, ‘Somewhat Unravelled,’ and
Simon Armitage, ‘The Overtones’
- Don Paterson, ‘A Gift,’ and Dannie Abse,
‘Song for Pythagoras’
‘A Gift’ has especially been sticking with me lately; I love the rhyme and rhythm, the short form and the dark, mysterious mood. It was a delight to slip that into the workshop even though it isn’t particularly medicine-related. The imagery in ‘Epidermal Macabre’ is fantastic: this reads as a rather cheeky, playful poem, reflective of the medical images of the subject removing his skin and hanging it like a coat, as in Anatomia, from Juan de Valverde de Hamusco’s ‘La anatomia del corpo humano’, 1556.
- Anatomia, 1556
‘Somewhat Unravelled’ hits home to anyone who has dealt with a family member aging and/or suffering some form of dementia, and ‘The Overtones’ is quite a trip: two very different poems about unusual mental states, the latter about synesthesia in a very playful and outrageous way. In fact (tangent,) all of the poems in Seeing Stars strike me as almost flash fiction or prose poems: mini-stories, capsules…they defy genre, and it’s delightful.
Meanwhile, I’ve been astounded by Robin Robertson since I heard him read (or rather, growl,) at the T.S. Eliot Prize, and linked the ‘incarnadine’ in ‘Epidermal Macabre’ with ‘Making the Green one Red,’ through the quote in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red”.
Hurrah for intertextual references! There’s a great explanation of the etymology and evolution of ‘incarnadine’ here
, and you can bet you’ll be reading it in a poem of mine in future.
Following our discussion, the students responded warmly to a prompt to come up with pairs of rhyming medical words, and we turned that into a group game of Bouts-Rimés,
where I asked them to emulate the rhyme scheme in ‘A Gift’ and ‘Song for Pythagoras’. Wow, was I impressed with what these medics turned out in about twenty minutes! We had a mini-reading at the end and all in all I would say it was a great success. One student wanted to know where to find poetry readings in London (I said to start with the Troubadour
, the Poetry Cafe
, and the Poetry Library
,) and another said this was much more pleasant than the poetry she’d previously been taught in school. Converts!