National Poetry Month has been called the “largest literary celebration in the world,” but some people just call it April. As this year’s NaPoMo winds down, it’s appropriate to reflect on poetry’s role in the medical humanities: What does poetry offer to the study and practice of medicine?
Physicians have responded to poetry for years, but the relationship between poetry and healing is often more instinctual than scientific. Last month, Abraham Verghese, PhD, in delivering the Simon Dack lecture during the opening ceremony of the American College of Cardiology meetings in San Diego, recited a poem by e.e.cummings called “I Carry Your Heart.” Robert Harrington, MD, chair of Stanford's Department of Medicine, commented upon hearing the lecture that hearing that poem provided an opportunity for him and others to reflect on “what cardiovascular medicine is all about… about connecting to one another and to our patients and listening to our patients.”
Poetry offers a common language to physicians and patients. It is short and easily learned by heart, making it ideal for office or bedside conversations.
The connection between hearts and poetry is easy to see. Poets have long used the anatomy of the beloved (eyes, necks, mouths) in their work. But poets also write about the human body in ways that open up for the reader all aspects of human emotion and experience. William Matthew’s poem “Eyes:” opens with a scientific fact - “the only parts of the body the same / size at birth as they’ll always be” - and then goes on to imaginatively describe the process of going blind. Another poet, uses “nystagmus” to describe a blues musician, Shaky Eyes Horton, in a poem that subtly frightens and celebrates. Poets love words, and it’s not surprising that medical jargon shows up in poetry. Could an ophthalmologist use one of these poems to enlarge her experience of her patients and their fears?
The body is often a metaphor for illness of the mind and spirit; “The Spleen,” written in the early eighteenth century, is an extended conversation with melancholia. Interestingly, this seemingly archaic poem is still quoted by journalists when hard science about the spleen is reported. Poetry provides another point of approach for the lay reader less able to navigate the statistics.
Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to the Liver” has been published in both Liver International (as a “casual encounter between a poet and a liver researcher”) and Alcohol Research. Neruda praises his liver as a noiseless machinery, knowing that if “one tiny cell / be in error / or one fiber be worn / in your labor / and the pilot flies into the wrong sky / the tenor collapses in a wheeze / the astronomer loses a planet.” What would it mean to patients fighting liver cancer to be given a poem which ends, “I love life: Do not betray me! Work on! / Do not arrest my song.”
Poetry offers a common language to physicians and patients. Poetry is short and easily learned by heart, making it ideal for office or bedside conversations. Physicians: How would it transform your practice to carry a poem in your pocket, the way e.e.cummings describes carrying the heart of his beloved? There are many poems to choose from. You might be surprised how useful they can be.
Jennifer Swanton Brown, RN, MLA (’12) is manager of regulatory services and education, in Spectrum, the Stanford Center for Clinical & Translational Research & Education. She published her first poem in the Palo Alto Times when she was a fifth grader at Escondido Elementary School. Having served as a poet-teacher with California Poets in the Schools since 2001, she is currently serving as the second poet laureate for the City of Cupertino.