2011 International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine

I recently attended the 2nd Annual Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine Symposium, which was held at Warwick Medical School and hosted by Professor Donald Singer and Associate Professor Michael Hulse. During the day, a group of researchers and clinicians from a variety of backgrounds gathered to explore the role of poetry in the discourse of medicine, including renowned poets, Marilyn Hacker and Gwyneth Lewis.

Themes included: 
history of interactions between medicine, health and poetry; impact of health and disease on the writings of the professional poet; poetry as therapy; the nature of the body, and anatomy; the history, evolution, current and future state of medical science; the nature and experience of tests; use of poetry in health professional training, the experience of doctors, nurses and other staff in hospitals and in the community; the experience of patients, families, friends and carers in these situations; the experiences of acute and long-term illness and dying, of birth, of cure and convalescence; the patient journey; the nature and experience of treatment with herbs, chemicals and devices used in medicine.

The diversity of both the themes and the backgrounds of the presenters, and attendees, signify a very important movement in contemporary medical practice; namely, to address the experience of practicing medicine, and the humanistic elements of the doctor and patient interaction.

Our contemporary clinical settings are surrounded by an array of machines, sterility, and the attempt to reach purity through the annihilation of disease and illness. During this battle, it is all too easy to lose the identity of who we are and who we are fighting for amongst the technology and techniques we can enact to engage with pathology. Yet, when the body is inflamed, and inflicted, with the wars between health and illness, and life and death, the nature of poetry reveals itself to be fundamental to our experience of being human. And this awareness was achieved throughout the symposium, with speakers such as Professor Femi Oyebode declaring the “same skills you need to write are the same skills you need to be a good doctor”.

In parallel to descriptions of symptoms and diagnoses, poetry describes the inner states of a person, the territory immune from any form of empirical probing. A poem is, in itself, a “machine made of words” (William Carlos Williams). The words one writes have a function; they are not just ethereal images and metaphors, or, as another of the presenters, Dr Sandy Goldbeck-Wood said, “poetry embodies the indescribable – poetry has a physical element; it encodes suffering”.

Such communication is vital for Medicine’s endeavor; to heal, the wound must be identified.

The identification of wounds in individuals and communities are both bodies of symptoms, exuberating into the environment which contains our living presence. This was illustrated most poignantly by the work of Dr Sorcha Gunne, who has analysed women’s poetry about HIV/Aids in South Africa.

Through a person’s narrative, a discourse forms, and in medicine it is one that serves the doctor and patient relationship.

Fiona Hamilton, from the writing organization, LAPIDUS, describes narratives as tools that “allow for confrontation between doctors and patients without jeopardizing the emotional disassociation required”. Poetry was also demonstrated to be an indiscriminate force; physical boundaries and limitations are transcended. Age, gender, culture, ethnicity, are irrelevant. Speakers Dr Simon Opher and Karen Hayes presented an exceptional project, working with elderly patients affected by dementia to reconstruct memory through metaphor – one of the last language functions to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s disease – and return to them their stories, because “stories are the architecture of who we are”.

On the other side of the spectrum – and world – Dr Renee Liang of New Zealand, showed the success of community initiatives that encourage under-privileged young people to release their frustrations and anger – as well as pride and joy – through poetry, and the positive impact that this has on their health.

The poem, though, is also for the healer. Nurse, Sue Spencer, described techniques for teaching nurses in medical education the value of words for the “(he)art of nursing”.

It also became apparent that medicine’s healing hands write in arenas other than the surgery, the hospital, the care home. Reflection on our human condition; its fragility and its robustness is part of the world we embody, and Rogan Wolf’s presentation “Poems in Public on the Frontier” personified this notion.

Finally, towards the end of a day characterized by moments of epiphany and realization of connections between the body and the mind, medicine and the human condition, there was a very special announcement. The symposium also marked the occasion to announce the winners of the annual International Hippocrates Poetry prize:

The winners of the open international awards were: ▪ 1st Prize: Michael Henry (Cheltenham, England) – The Patella Hammer. ▪ 2nd Prize: Cheryl Moskowitz (London, England) – Correspondence with the Care Home. ▪ 3rd Prize: Johanna Emeney (Albany, New Zealand) – Radiologist’s Report.

The winners of the NHS category awards were: ▪ 1st Prize: Paula Cunningham (Belfast, N Ireland) – The Chief Radiographer Considers. ▪ 2nd Prize: Wendy French (London, England) – The Doctor’s Wife. 3rd Prize: Dr Sandy Goldbeck-Wood (Cambridge, England) – Inappropriate ADH.

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