Reflections from the 5th International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine by Clare Best
This year’s Symposium invited us to focus on how we might begin to define the term ‘medical poetry’ and asked if that is even a useful aim. Michael Hulse started the day with a thought-provoking talk proposing that the Romantic ego has evolved and survived in the area of medical poetry whereas it is now rare in other contemporary poetry. He argued that the natural successors of the Romantic poets, those foregrounding the self in extremis, are concerned with what he terms ‘primary medical poetry’ – in which a person writes about his/her own experience of illness or treatment from the point of view of an existential self. ‘Secondary medical poetry’ is the term Michael used to describe poetry written about medical experiences happening to a close other. He saw ‘tertiary medical poetry’ as including poetry that stands at another remove from the medical experience, being more engaged with scientific, historical, ethical and other aspects of medicine.
Michael’s talk was a helpful starting point, and throughout the day speakers came back and back to the different kinds of medical poetry he had suggested. After years of hearing nothing but the term ‘confessional poetry’ used in reference to poetry of extremis written in the first person, I liked Michael’s idea of affirming ‘a central literary site’ for the Romantic ego.
A particular highlight of the Symposium, for me, was Sandy Goldbeck-Wood’s beautifully fluent and convincing presentation of her work on how biography drives biology. I have always been interested in how the body expresses adverse experiences as symptoms, and I found myself nodding as Sandy spoke about how ‘both poetry and psychosomatic illness might be seen to be forms of embodied feeling or knowledge, both resisting “purely conscious” forms of communication’. Yes!
There were many, many other highlights, including Alan Beattie’s warm and generous account of Norman Nicholson’s life and poetry, Ahmed Hankir’s powerfully dramatic rendition of his ideas around the wounded healer, and Jens Lohfert Jorgensen’s brilliantly engaging presentation of the Danish poet Morten Sondergaard’s Wordpharmacy (do have a look at http://www.wordpharmacy.com) – I’ll be ordering my copy immediately.
Then there was poetry itself of course: poems of medicine and surgery, remedy and reverie, diagnosis and prognosis, all kinds of poems to make you laugh and cry. I was honoured to present some of mine from Self-portrait without Breasts alongside Rebecca Goss reading vivid and beautiful poems from Her Birth and Lesley Saunders reading from her stunning collection Cloud Camera.
Philip Gross gave gorgeous readings from Deep Field and Later, leading us on into the final part of the day which celebrated the winning and commended poets in the three categories (Young Poet, NHS and Open Awards) of the 2014 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. Conor McKee won the Young Poet section with ‘I Will Not Cut for Stone’, Ellen Storm won the NHS section with ‘Out of Hospital Arrest’ and Jane Draycott won the Open section with ‘The Return’. Many congratulations to all the winning and commended poets.
I came away from the Symposium once again inspired and uplifted by the truth and power of poetry that addresses medical subjects. I came away knowing that in the face of extreme and threatening medical events, in situations where our identities are challenged and even deconstructed or changed forever, poetry can excite us into new appreciations of life and of who we are and can be. As I see it, the more science probes and uncovers the physical and medical experiences of our lives, the more we need poetry to interpret and express these experiences. Poetry and medicine are perfect companions.
Thank you Donald Singer, Michael Hulse, Nicola Williams and all the others including the judges Sarah Crown, Robert Francis QC, Philip Gross and Kit Wright, who made Saturday happen. It was a wonderfully rich day. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Symposium.
Find out more about the Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine at: www.hippocrates-poetry.org