Sandy Goldbeck-Wood: Poetry, humanity and the prize

Sandy Goldbeck-WoodWhy do some doctors write poems? I asked this once in a BMJ book review of poetry by doctors. 12 years on, gamekeeper-turned-poacher, it’s still Miroslav Holub’s answer I like best: “a poem arises when there’s nothing else to be done, as a last attempt at order when one can’t stand disorder any longer.” (1) Lest we miss it, he presses his point home in terms healthcare professionals cannot fail to understand:  “Although poets are most needed when freedom, vitamin C, communications, laws, and hypertension therapy are also most needed … a poem is not one of the last but one of the first things of man.”  As a world class immunologist and poet, Holub was uniquely qualified to comment.

From the 1 500 entries from 23 countries for this year’s Hippocrates Prize for Medicine and Poetry, it’s clear that Holub’s view has sympathisers within and beyond the NHS. Whatever it is that poetry offers us, be it a place to put unexpressed feelings, a refuge from medicine’s deadly-earnestness, or chance for creativity to fight back against all that science, the fact is that doctors, dentists, nurses, and radiographers are secretly spinning consultations, investigations, diseases, and treatments into poems, and playing subversive games with medicine’s strange but enchanting language.
There’s nothing new about this, viewed globally and historically – the connection between medicine and poetry can be traced back in a more or less unbroken line to Hippocrates himself. But what Hippocrates Prize co-founders Donald Singer and Michael Hulse have achieved since founding the prize in 2010 is to build a strong new academic bridge between medicine and poetry within the United Kingdom. With generous funding from The Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine, the Cardiovascular Research trust, Heads, Teachers and Industrythe Wellcome Trust, and the University of Warwick, with judges drawn from among leading international poets, including Dannie Abse, Gwyneth Lewis, Marilyn Hacker, and the BBC’s James Naughtie and Mark Lawson, these two Warwick-based professors of Clinical Pharmacology (Singer) and Literature (Hulse) respectively have created not only a prize, but a new research community in the medical humanities.

A now annual Medicine and Poetry Symposium, next to be hosted at the Wellcome Foundation, and an emerging International Medicine and Poetry Research Forum, explore themes from the history of poetry and medicine, through medicine as a source of inspiration or subject matter for poetry, to poetry as a therapeutic tool. Academic perspectives from literature and psychoanalysis meet practical therapeutic initiatives from the GP surgery, hospital, or community. The poetry of premier practitioners such as Chekhov, Carlos Williams, Holub and the prize judges themselves, meets that of disaffected New Zealand young people, dementia sufferers, or nurses in training.

I’ve never won a poetry prize before. When I heard I’d come third, I thought of that Monopoly card: “You have won third prize in a poetry competition!” which usually elicits just a wry smile and a few quid to put towards a green plastic house on the Old Kent Road, while the real winners build hotels on Mayfair.  But to someone compelled to scribble poems late at night between more obviously urgent and useful tasks, and then bathe in the stream of editorial rejections which is most poems’ fate, the pleasure of winning anything feels more like winning the lottery. Pleasure mixed, I confess, with relief – as though in receipt of an authoritative diagnosis to explain and legitimate one’s odd, irrational behaviour.

Which brings me to shame. I argued in this year’s Medicine and Poetry symposium that shame haunts the writing of poetry like it haunts sexual advance. Think of both as erotic gestures – bare-faced and indefensible in terms of practical usefulness – and you see the point. Neither will earn you a Merit Award or a hotel on Mayfair. Both depend, critically, on nothing but whether the other person likes who you are and what you are doing. And if they don’t, that makes you a nuisance, ridiculous, or objectionable.

So why should healthcare care about poetry? If for no other reason, then because healthcare practitioners are writing it. It is one place they are reflecting on their practice, and therefore a source of data it would be wasteful to ignore. Think of it as another form of Medical Education or CPD, developing not technical skills and performance, but humanity, in the face of all that science and suffering; psychic glue, to anneal inappropriately disconnected parts. If it could do that (and look out for future workshops exploring this [2])  – that would be the real prize.

Sandy Goldbeck-Wood, doctor, poet, editor

The Hippocrates Prize Anthologies for 2010 and 2011 can be bought via:

[1]: Poem: “Although” in: Poems Before and After, Bloodaxe.

[2]: For more information on future Poetry in Healthcare Workshops, contact: