Poetry News

Does poetry have place in contemporary medical practice?

By Harriet Staff

This NY Times piece examines the role of poetry in the contemporary medical world:

There used to be just two sure-fire ways to get a medical student’s attention: offer free food or give the answer to a question on an upcoming exam.

Now apparently there is a third: sponsor a poetry contest.

Last spring, as part of a larger collaboration, Yale University School of Medicine and University College London Medical School sponsored a poetry contest for their students. The judges, a panel of professors with expertise in medicine, the humanities or both, expected no more than a handful of entries.

They ended up with more than 160.

“We had underestimated the interest of medical students in poetry, their motivation to write a poem and the quality of their work” said Dr. John Martin, organizer of the competition and a professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London. A published poet himself, Dr. Martin was “moved to tears” by the poem “Mastectomy,” by Gabrielle Gascoigne, a fourth-year medical student at University College London at the time of the contest. Other prizewinners were “Apices,” by Daphne Tan, and “Aphasia,” by Noah Capurso.

While some have posited that the inspirational muse for students who entered the competition was the first-place prize of $1,500, donated anonymously by a patient interested in literature, Dr. Martin believes the enthusiastic response in fact reflects a “resurrection” of interest in poetry among doctors. “It was rare in my generation for doctors to write poems, but I think there’s a new interest in poetry and how it can arise from what we do,” he said.

Poetry has long been linked to medicine; in mythology, the Greek god Apollo was responsible for, among other things, both healing and poetry. And poets like John Keats, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and William Carlos Williams were all trained as doctors. For them and other physicians of their time, reading or writing poetry required skills not that dissimilar from those employed in daily clinical work — an ability to connect emotionally with the subject, as well as careful attention to rhythm, whether it was in the form of verse or heartbeats and breathing.

Interest in poetry waned over the last few generations as physicians became more preoccupied with high-tech biomedical research than with iambic pentameter. Now, however, as the medical profession places more and more weight on approaches that emphasize the patient and wellness, doctors are once again turning to poetry for inspiration. And education.

Read the rest after the jump, including the student winners.

Originally Published: December 1st, 2011