Greenwood Village, CO (Spring 2017)
Poetry is the most ancient of medicines. From the earliest physicians in Egypt to the bustling modern hospital’s wide range of health professionals, poetry has long been part of healing. From the chants and charms that the ancients considered cures for supernaturally caused diseases, through the Middle Ages as necessary adjuncts to herbal remedies, as well as a memory aid for potions recipes, poetry went hand in hand with medicine. Verse has also long been an aid to memory, much like mnemonics.
Notable physician-poets include John Keats (1795-1821), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894), and William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). Despite developing tuberculosis, Keats managed in a single year, 1819, to produce some of the finest lyrical poetry in the English language. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., not only taught medicine and coined the word “anesthesia”; he was regarded by his peers as one of the best writers of the 19th century. William Carlos Williams, a doctor for over forty years, wrote luminous poetry, publishing his Pulitzer Prize winning Pictures from when he was seventy-nine years old. His poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” expresses his view that poetry is essential to a full life and physical health:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Contemporary physicians learn to treat the mental and physical needs of a patient as parts of a whole, rather than as separate from disease, illness, or trauma. They are encouraged to be more empathetic, to understand patients’ emotions, beliefs, and attitudes about illness.[i] As this approach evolves, many rediscover how poetic verse was used in healing rituals in ancient India, Egypt, and Greece; for medical education in Europe and northern Africa; and to honor loved ones lost to illness worldwide.
Many medical schools are adding poetry to the curriculum. Like their predecessors, physicians are writing poetry to cope with their own feelings about medicine and mortality. Harvard physician and poet Campo explains why poetry is analogous to treating patients with dignity, integrity, and respect:
A good poem engulfs us, takes hold of us physically. Its concision and urgency demand the participation of another in order to achieve completeness, to attain full meaning. In these ways, it’s not so different from providing the best, most compassionate care to our patients.[ii]
Poetry can facilitate effective communication and empathy between provider and patient regarding hard-to-discuss issues, such as dependencies and mortality.
Behind every medical chart is a fellow human being with hopes, fears, and dreams. Patients write poetry for self-expression; the opportunity to express the seemingly inexpressible—physical and psychological pain and suffering—can be deeply therapeutic. This process can thus reduce stress, aid rehabilitation, promote healing, and improve self-esteem.
While some might perceive poetry to be for the elite, the benefits of poetry are available to everyone. A poem can assign a name to patients’ symptoms, and place patients in direct communication with others who have similarly suffered. Writing poetry can help the patient recognize both their own mortality and the power of the human spirit. Perhaps most importantly, words and language make us feel human, and feel connected.
The fields of art and science will inform and transform one another for centuries to come, as physicians strive to enhance compassionate care.
- Carol E. Golin, Carolyn Thorpe, and M. Robin DiMatteo. Accessing the patient’s world. In A. Earp, E.A. French, & M. Gilkey (Eds.), Patient Advocacy for Health Care Quality: Strategies for Achieving Patient-Centered Care (Chapter 7), (Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2008), 187.
- Danielle Ofri. Patients Need Poetry. (2013). Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2013/07/poetry_and_medicine_rafael_campo_and_why_doctors_need_the_humanities.html
- Painting: “El Corazon.” Courtesy of Warner K. Varno. Permission obtained 2.24.17 via email.
DEBBIE MCCULLIS has a MSN in nursing from University of Colorado. She is a certified applied poetry facilitator. She graduated from the Johns Hopkins Advanced Science-Medical Writing program in 2014 and is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing.