First impressions on poetry and medicine

Nicki Photo for Hippocrates

Nicola Williams, Hippocrates Initiative Administrator

Entries for the 2014 Hippocrates Prize are now open for international, NHS and Young Poet (aged 14-18) entries.

In a world where we are increasingly encouraged to view the arts and sciences as separate, and coming from a family where my medic sister and myself (studying literature) had come to think of ourselves as opposites, it was strange to discover the Hippocrates Initiative where poetry and medicine were paired hand in hand. Granted, I had stumbled across enough doctor/writers throughout my degree, but I had never considered, as Femi Oyebode suggested at a past Hippocrates symposium, that ‘the same skills you need to write are the same skills you need to be a good doctor.’ Associating doctors, as so many of us do, with waiting rooms, latex gloves, latin words and complex technology, I had forgotten that doctors, like writers, run on empathy, a need to help, and a desire to change the world.

When friends and family began their careers in healthcare professions, they had to learn how to come to terms with viewing the body in a different light and with how to deal with witnessing typically personal corporeal experiences. I remember feeling horrified when a friend told me about her first dissection class, and how she had wanted to cry. She hadn’t known how communicate her distress or who to talk to about it with. A certain level of disassociation had to occur for her to be able to continue, and so she swallowed and pushed it out of mind. I think if the idea of poetry had even been presented as a means of coping with the difficulties of the medical profession, on the level of a human being assaulted by the nature of humanity, then this may have been a valuable outlet for her.

Poetry as therapy can be even more beneficial for the patient, and for the relatives of sufferers. Winner of the 2013 Hippocrates Young Poet Prize, Rosalind Jana, discusses an operation she underwent as a young teenager to treat the curvature of her spine. Her poem, Posterior Instrumented Fusion for Adolescent Scoliosis, encapsulates the pain of her condition and the simultaneous force and delicacy required for such a complex operation: Her back, like ‘a silver stripe of lavender’, is ‘sliced’ by a scalpel, ‘unpicked’ and ‘laced’ back together again. 

But the links between poetry and medicine aren’t important purely from an emotionally therapeutic or cathartic perspective. The field is developing in such a way that poetry is being used to advance understanding and to treat certain conditions. Dr Simon Opher and Karen Hayes, who spoke at the Hippocrates Initiative symposium in 2011, discussed the results of poetry workshops run with sufferers of severe dementia. A professional poet created poetry out of fragments retrieved from hour-long sessions with the patients, in an attempt to reconstruct memory through poetry derived from their own language. Reading back the poetry to the patients, carers and poet alike were astonished to see how typically unresponsive patients would ‘light up’ as ‘their’ poetry was read to them.

It is genuinely exciting to come across an initiative which sets up the combination of poetry and medicine as a discourse; Where using poetry as therapy as a sufferer, a relative or as a healthcare professional is recognised as essential to medical advancement and to convalescence; Where science and arts are recognised as dually integral to our understanding of humanity. The Hippocrates initiative marks the emergence of a new and creative direction in medicine and healthcare, one that reconnects the body, this mass of muscle and sinew and electric signals, to the person within it, to their memories and to their experiences within that body.


 © Hippocrates initiative 2012: hippocrates.poetry@gmail.com