Poetry and Medicine

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!

2 thoughts on “Poetry and Medicine

  1. While the poetic strand of the study of Medical Humanities is clearly an effective means of developing empathy in young doctors, it seems to me that often the writing of ‘medical poetry’ can become purely an intellectual exercise – as many poems submitted to the Hippocrates Prize 2012 demonstrated – allowing students to avoid having to think about the patient’s (or indeed their own) experience of illness and treatment. I realise mine may be a narrow view of the point of Medical Humanities. But having recently published an anthology of historical and modern verse devoted to the patients’ perspective, entitled Through Corridors of Light: Poems of Consolation in Time of Illness, I am finding it difficult to get the medical press to review the book, so that doctors, nurses and other professionals might learn from this rare repository of writing from the patients’ point of view. Whatever the reason for that, I think you’ll find the book a valuable resource for teaching in this field, and you can read about the book at http://www.poemsofconsolation.net if you are interested.

    • Dear John,

      Thank you for sharing your experience – it sounds an interesting challenge! Perhaps your anthology would make a good point of discussion at the next Hippocrates Conference, where this kind of debate and mixing of doctors, patients, students, and ‘the public’ happens.

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