Book Review: Cancer Poetry

 

Ian Twiddy, Cancer Poetry. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Reviewed by Sue Spencer

 

Cancer remains one of the most feared of diseases. It evokes dread in the general public and stimulates startling headlines about its insidious and destructive nature. Even as knowledge increases and cancer detection rates improve, this remains the case, despite the fact that cancer is now more treatable and curable than ever. Given this shift in experience of cancer, I had hoped that Cancer Poetry might provide an insight into how poets and poetry have helped humankind navigate this tricky terrain – a big ask I realise, but I do believe that poetry has the potential to achieve this.

I looked forward to reviewing this book. As a nurse, an educator and a writer, I am committed to improving patient experience of health care. I believe that creative approaches can be very powerful in terms of bridging the gap between patients and professionals in the clinical encounter. I am committed to Julia Darling’s project of promoting poetry within this arena. Julia’s introduction to The Poetry Cure, where she shared her own experiences of writing poetry whilst being treated for breast cancer herself, exhorts the benefits of poetry in health and illness:

 “I believe that poetry can help you make you better. Poetry is essential, not a frill or a nicety” (1)

Knowing Julia, I also know that she did not see poetry as an elitist enterprise. She created spaces where wonderful poetry could be responded to in an accessible and enabling way. However, the poetry world does have a problem with being perceived as elitist, with discussions around poetry sometimes viewed as alienating and “other worldly”. Many people I encounter do not often see the relevance of poetry to clinical practice until they actually experience its alchemy and find out for themselves how metaphor, metonym, rhythm, patterns of speech and language itself can shed light on the everyday, particularly in the context of health care practice.

I have to confess to finding Cancer Poetry a difficult read, and found myself skipping significant chunks where it did not engage me. I found the author’s sweeping generalisations and unsubstantiated comments particularly irritating. There are no references to psychological and sociological literature that might illuminate what might be “going on” in a poet’s work.

My first question relates to the inspiration behind this book. Why it was written? Was there an intellectual or emotional impetus to analyse this subject? My personal feeling is that Cancer Poetry reads as an intellectual exploration, in contrast to work such as that of Julia Darling, which, by encouraging us to confront raw emotions and to deal with contested realities, establishes the potential for poetry to help patients and professionals during demanding treatment regimes. Cancer Poetry is a dense book, with an undoubtedly rich content, but I struggled to grasp its potential within the context of improving the experiences of people living with cancer and its treatment.

The opening chapter attempts to chart the terrain, but seems to end up being more of a celebration of Paul Muldoon and his work. There appears to be an ambivalence about whether cancer should be written about and a reluctance to state a position as to whether it is a worthy subject and whether “good” poetry results. There is also a limited review of the foray of other disciplines into this subject – for example, the role of linguistic scholars and the pervasiveness of the war metaphors used to present people’s experiences of living with cancer. I disagree with the author when he states that a similar language is not used in the discourse around other conditions – we hear of ‘wars’ on obesity, people ‘battling’ neurological degeneration etc.

The opening chapter discusses high profile survivors and battlers of cancer, for example Jane Tomlinson and Lance Armstrong, but all of this misses the point that these “celebrity” patients are not typical or representative of most people’s experiences.

The chapters that follow are categorised around specific themes and this is where I found more traction and some engagement in relation to the discussion. However, I would have liked to have known why the author chose the poets that he did. After all, there is a huge body of poetry written about cancer experiences from a range of perspectives and the analysis in this book seems partial and limited. There is also little discussion of the poems in the context of the poets’ other works. It can be very narrow to discuss poems solely on the subject they explore rather than within the landscape of a poet’s other work or within a historical or cultural context. People’s experiences of cancer are often shaped by their health care encounters, cancer treatments and their side effects, relationships with health care professionals, and ongoing uncertainties around choice and prognosis. All of this must inform poetry written on this subject, yet I found myself not being able to grasp the arguments presented in Cancer Poetry.

This book represents all that I find difficult and challenging in the world of medical humanities. For me, Cancer Poetry is not an example of a melding of knowledge and theory. It is a book of literary criticism on poems written about cancer. I may be wrong, but if we want to engage health care practitioners in the merits of the humanities, to enhance their practice we need to focus less on intellectual silos and more on making connections, sharing insights, creating synergy and stimulating new thinking. I wish this book had done that.

 

Reference

  1. The Poetry Cure edited by Julia darling and Cynthia Fuller 2005 BloodAxe Books http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/

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