Medicinal Poetry

When we think of literature and medicine, we tend to think of prose: essays that reveal the physician’s internal dialogue or perhaps a medical thriller unleashed from the doctor’s imagination. But poetry, too, may flow from the pen of a physician—sometimes some of the best of poetry.

 Most people, I’ll warrant, find most poetry insufferably laced with flowery superlatives, or inscrutably larded with pedantic references. Yet some poems can be engaging, usually in one of two ways. 

There are of course those delightful little ditties, often funny and song–like. 

However, every once in a while, we may read a poem that makes us drop our shoulders and linger over the words as we absorb a thought or feeling so profound that only a poet could have found the words for it.

The physicians who write poetry are sometimes more poet than physician, or vice versa. And a few are, or were, masters at both. In any case, medicine and poetry are readily entangled by the ‘unbearable lightness of being[’.

Here is a brief introduction to a few of the physician–poets taken from the archives of history. We will also touch upon an unrealized need and unmet duty of most doctors, one that is best expressed poetically. We then close with a pointer to some resources.

Physician–Poets Past

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John Keats 1795-1821

I confess, Keats is mostly lost on me—except for one verse from Ode on a Grecian Urn, which puts him, in my mind, in the pantheon of the wisest philosophers. He also qualified as a surgeon, having trained at the famed Guy Hospital in London. Of the urn, he posits:

When old age shall this generation waste, 

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe 

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, 

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all 

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

– Ode on a Grecian Urn


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Oliver Wendell Holmes 1809-1894

Biography.com says he is a physician “best known as a poet and humorist”. But to physicians, O.W. Holmes Sr. is one of the few truly great founders of American Medicine, former Dean of Harvard Medical School (and father of the Supreme Court Justice O.W. Holmes Jr–a eugenicist). His best known poem is The Chambered Nautilus. But I rather like this critique of all us would-be wordsmiths: 

If all the trees in all the woods were men; 

And each and every blade of grass a pen; 

If every leaf on every shrub and tree 

Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea 

Were changed to ink, and all earth's living tribes 

Had nothing else to do but act as scribes, 

And for ten thousand ages, day and night, 

The human race should write, and write, and write, 

Till all the pens and paper were used up, 

And the huge inkstand was an empty cup, 

Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink 

Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink. 

– Cacoethes Scribendi


 Doyle

Doyle

 Bell

Bell

Arthur Conan Doyle 1859-1930

Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, deals with a wide range of topics, including a long ode to mortality. Incidentally, the Sherlock character’s powers of observation and deduction was based on his mentor in medical school— Dr. Joseph Bell, himself an amateur poet.

Here is Doyle’s depiction of the fear of the unknown:

Who's that running on the moorland?

Who's that flying on the hill?

He is there -- and there again,

But you cannot see him plain,

For the shadow lies so darkly on the hill.

 

What's that lying in the heather?

What's that lurking on the hill?

My horse will go no nearer,

And I cannot see it clearer,

But there's something that is lying on the hill.

– A Tragedy

And here, a ditty about scientific knowledge:

The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there,

And warmly debated the matter;

The Orthodox said that it came from the air,

And the Heretics said from the platter.

They argued it long and they argued it strong,

And I hear they are arguing now;

But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese,

Not one of them thought of a cow.

– A Parable


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William Carlos Williams 1883-1963

Williams was an extensively trained pediatrician who practiced his whole life in Rutherford, New Jersey. He was also a peer and friend of Ezra Pound and mentor to Allan Ginsberg. He won a Pulitzer Prize but was dismissed as Consultant in Poetry to the National Library of Congress at the hand of the McCarthy-ites.

As an ‘imagist’ he paid great attention to objects, but only implying their significance (“no ideas but in things”). Williams commentary on The Red Wheel Barrow gives us some insight into how his experiences became poetry.

“[It]…sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently…In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.

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So much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

– The Red Wheelbarrow

 If you prefer a longer piece, also filled with vivid imagery, see his epic poem, Paterson, published in five volumes.

Listen to Williams read at Columbia in 1942.


A Doctor’s First Duty…

As to the unrealized need and unmet duty of most doctors?—it is to ask ‘forgiveness’. I will explain by quoting from Reel Oncology, a piece I did for Sermo, a social network for physicians:

Wild Strawberries debuted in the US in 1959, when Dr. Simone was finishing medical school. It depicts the events, thoughts and dreams of a 78 year old retired professor of medicine as he journeys off to a grand ceremonial honoring of his distinguished career. In one dream, our protagonist finds himself under examination for medical competence. On a blackboard is a cryptic phrase. He complains “I am a doctor, not a linguist.” He has to be told. It’s a question: “What is a doctor’s first duty.” He remains dumbfounded. The answer—“To ask for forgiveness”—Dr. Simone says “… hit me right between the eyes.” Although this bit of the film has escaped critical commentary, the meaning for Dr. Simone, now himself a much honored physician at 79, was, in retrospect, very clear: “… we doctors have a great deal to ask forgiveness for, our relative ignorance, the times we act without charity, and the invasion of patients' bodies with knife or rays or chemical. A doctor without a substantial and persistent sense of humility every day is a poor doctor.” 

 

 Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries

Lest you think this is merely sentimentality that comes with age, consider this poem by Dr. Campo, a practicing physician at an esteemed Boston hospital who’s poetry has won him a Guggenheim Fellowship, an honorary Doctor of Literature degree and numerous literary prizes:

Forgive me, body before me, for this.

Forgive me for my bumbling hands, unschooled in how to touch: 

I meant to understand what fever was, not love. 

Forgive me for my stare, 

but when I look at you, 

I see myself laid bare. 

Forgive me, body, for what seems like calculation when I take a breath before I cut you with my knife, because the cancer has to be removed. 

Forgive me for not telling you, but I’m no poet. 

Forgive me, please, for my confusing heart

that sounds so much like yours.  

Forgive me for the night, when I sleep too, 

beside you under the same moon.

Forgive me for my dreams, 

for my rough knees,

for giving up too soon. 

Forgive me, please, for losing you, 

unable to forgive.

– Morbidity and Mortality Rounds

[Line formatting mine]

'Morbidity and Mortality Rounds' is the term for the hospital tradition of reviewing cases the had bad outcomes: from errors, even those without consequence, to deaths that were ‘avoidable’. It is an exercise in clinical analysis that masks the fear and shame of failing.

 Campos with patient

Campos with patient

 With book

With book

For an interview with Campo see A Doctor Explains the Healing Power of Poetry.

My attempt to put into prose the messages of Bergman, Simone and Campo is this:

When doctors assume God-like responsibility for life and death, it is an act of hubris. The calling is sanctified only when tempered by humility, the humility that comes from asking forgiveness—for the inescapable shortcomings of being human, and not a God.

But poetry says it better.

Hippocrates Initiative, LitMed Database &...

Over 50 physician–poets surface in a page-ranked list from a Google search, ranging from Judah Halevi (1075–1141) to six living physician–poets.

It would nice to have some guideposts for sorting this out and exploring further.

For contemporary offerings see The Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine. Since 2010 it has been awarding annually its Hippocrates Prize. The related publications have been well received. Audio and video recordings are available online.

You can watch a video interview of a winner from 2017. The deadline for 2018 consideration is Feb 14, 2018. You can enter online. Who knows? A 2013 winner was none other than Rafael Campo. 

For more motivation, see Patients Need Poetry, And so do Doctors, on Slate.

The Yale and University College London Collaborative sponsored a medical student poetry contest in 2014 and got some 450 entries.

A valuable archive is held in the venerable NYU School of Medicine’s LitMed database, including a database of poetry in medicine.

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Healing 

As the author of an article in Lancet from 1997, Literature and Medicine: Physicians and Poets, said: “Physician and poet can both be healers”.

The poems from physicians are not simply anodynes for pain and grief. As a reviewer of the 2013 anthology from the Hippocrates Prize winners noted, “Uplift and consolation aren’t the theme; rather, poem after poem offers clarity, courage, and above all attention.” 

Poetry is attention.

Returning to William Carlos Williams:

My heart rouses

thinking to bring you news

of something

that concerns you

and concerns many men.  Look at

what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

despised poems.

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

– Asphodel, that Greeny Flower

Books

Poems about doctors: Poetry in Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness and Healing

Poetry in Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness and Healing

"Infused with hope, heartbreak, and humor, this book gathers our greatest poets from antiquity to the present, prescribing new perspectives on doctors and patients, remedies and procedures, illness and recovery. A literary elixir, Poetry in Medicine displays the genre’s capacity to heal us. "

Blood and Bone: Poems by Physicians

" Poems by Physicians explores the profound connections between medicine and poetry through the eyes of contemporary physician-poets. These one hundred poems record instances of pain and recovery, joy and grief, humor and irony within the restricted society of caregivers and their patients."

Let us know about a medicine–related poem or poet that is important to you. Leave a comment, email us at info@medicalhistorytour.com or visit medicalhistorytour.com.

You can find history of medicine books through our Amazon affiliate link.

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