National Poetry Month: Poetry and Medicine
Each year since 1996, April is National Poetry Month in the United States of America. National Poetry Month was originally launched by the Academy of American Poets, the organization that runs the website Poets.org. National Poetry Month is a reminder to celebrate poets and the important role poetry plays in our lives.
Poetry also plays a role in healthcare, whether it is poetry written by healthcare professionals, poetry written by patients, or poetry written about health and medical conditions. Health is a critical part of the human experience, and poetry is a wonderful medium for expressing the human experience. Shawn P. (2020) expressed “that exceptional care must always include an emotional connection on some level with our patients. Humans are emotional beings.”
Writing Medical Poetry
While health sciences and poetry are often considered at opposite ends of intellectual interest, many health science and medical practitioners love both disciplines. The split between the two perhaps dates back to Aristotle in Poetica, in which he pitted poetry against science as a battle of imagination versus facts (Illingworth, 2015). Prithwish Banerjee (2010), a cardiologist, expressed their love of poetry and mentioned “strange looks from many a doctor colleague” upon learning of that love. However, Banerjee is not alone in showing skill in both poetry and medicine.
Robert Bridges, who was a doctor, retired at age 40 to write poetry (Cook, 2002). He became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1913-1930. In the United States, Amit Majmudar, a diagnostic nuclear radiologist, was named Poet Laureate of the state of Ohio in 2015 (Poetry Foundation, 2022). Another example is Solyman Brown, credited with establishing the first dental journal, the first national U.S. dental society, and the first U.S. dental school, was also called the “Poet Laureate of Dentistry” for his dental-themed poetry, such as “Dentologia, a Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth and their Proper Remedies” (Ring, 2002).
Since Aristotle, other poets and scientists have felt differently about the supposedly irreconcilable differences between science and poetry. As German poet Johann von Goethe wrote: “Science arose from poetry, when times change the two can meet again on higher levels as friends.” Satya Mohanty (2021) similarly concluded, “While science is the poetry of the intellect, poetry is the science of human emotion.”
Poetry Featuring Health and Medicine
Poets, whether health sciences practitioners or patients, have centered poetry around medical and health topics. JAMA, one of the premier medical journals in the world, collects and publishes poems as part of their “Poetry and Medicine” feature. Here, the goal is to “address the experience and meanings of healing and illness” (JAMA Network, 2022). “Every Time” by Alex Ruuska paints a poignant image of the experience of spending time with a loved one with dementia. In “It Starts with the Brain”, Michael Wynn muses about the power and complexity of the human brain.
As would be expected, a number of poems over the last few years have focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, such as “COVID Dying” by Ralph James Savarese, “Reason for Everything” by Lauren Elizabeth Claus, “I Dream of Animals During the Pandemic” by M. Cynthia Cheung, and “First Sunday on the Ward, Pandemic” by Stacy Nigliazzo.
We’ll feature some of these poems at our upcoming Virtual Fireside Reading: Poetry and Medicine, on Tuesday April 5, at 5 PM Pacific / 7 PM Central / 8 PM Eastern. You can register on the iLEARN site here: https://ilearn.usa.edu/event?eventid=9012742.
Poetry as a Healthcare Intervention
Finally, I want to address the use of poetry as a healthcare intervention. Practitioners, researchers, and educators have found poetry to be a powerful tool for health, solace, and personal peace.
Not surprisingly, poetry has found the most application in helping those with serious illness, including those in palliative care, find “meaning, solace and enjoyment” (Davies, 2018). Carroll (2005) spoke to the “healing” effect of poetry: “finding the words to articulate a traumatic experience can bring relief” (p. 162). He felt that poetry “gives us ways to talk about” (Carroll, 2005, p. 162) death and dying. Stuckey and Nobel (2010) took this a step further, conducting a review of the literature and concluding that “artistic engagement has significantly positive effects on health” (p. 261). Likewise, Rickett et al. (2011) conducted a randomized controlled trial on the topic, and found that cancer patients engaged in poetry workshops demonstrated an increase in wellbeing.
Educators have also used poetry in health sciences, nursing, and medical education as a means of teaching empathy and emotional awareness. Jack (2015) assigned undergraduate nursing students to write a poem related to the role of the nurse, and found that students increased their understanding, learned something new about themselves, and enjoyed the experience. Shapiro et al. (2004) enrolled first year medical students in a literature and medicine elective, finding that students’ scores on two different empathy measures increased after completing the literature course.
Here are some ways you can celebrate National Poetry Month this year:
- Join the USAHS Library for a Virtual Fireside Reading about Poetry and Medicine
- Read poems from JAMA’s Poetry and Medicine page
- Sign up for Poem-a-Day to receive a new poem in your inbox daily
- Participate in Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 29, 2022, by sharing a favorite poem online with the hashtag #PocketPoem
- Follow the USAHS Library on Facebook and Instagram to celebrate with us all month long!
Banerjee, P. (2010). Facets of writing medical poetry. Clinical Medicine, 10(3), 301-303. https://doi.org/10.7861/clinmedicine.10-3-301
Carroll, R. (2005). Finding the words to say it: The healing power of poetry. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2(2), 161-172. https://doi.org/10.1093/ecam/neh096
Cook, G. C. (2002). The medical career of Robert Seymour Bridges, FRCP (1844-1930): Physician and Poet Laureate. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 78(923), 549-554. https://doi.org/10.1136/pmj.78.923.549
Davies, E. A. (2018). Why we need more poetry in palliative care. BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care, 8(3), 266-270. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjspcare-2017-001477
Illingworth, S. (2015, November 9). Science vs. poetry [Blog post]. PLOS SciComm. https://scicomm.plos.org/2015/11/09/science-vs-poetry-by-sam-illingworth/
Jack, K. (2015). The use of poetry writing in nurse education: An evaluation. Nurse Education Today, 35(9), e7-e10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2015.04.011
JAMA Network. (2022). Poetry and medicine. https://jamanetwork.com/collections/44062/poetry-and-medicine?fl_Categories=Poetry+and+Medicine&fl_ContentType=Article&page=2
Mohanty, S. (2021, April 7). When poetry and science meet. The Wire. https://thewire.in/culture/when-poetry-and-science-meet
P., S. (2020). Nursing and poetry. AJN, American Journal of Nursing, 120(7), 13. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.NAJ.0000688124.84589.3D
Poetry Foundation. (2022). Amit Majmudar. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/amit-majmudar
Ring, M. E. (2002). Solyman Brown, a giant of dentistry and its poet laureate. Journal of the California Dental Association, 30(30, 216-224. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12002252/
Rickett, C., Greive, C., & Gordon, J. (2011). Something to hang my life on: The health benefits of writing poetry for people with serious illnesses. Australasian Psychiatry, 19(3), 265-268. https://doi.org/10.3109/10398562.2011.562298
Shapiro, J., Morrison, E., & Boker, J. (2004). Teaching empathy to first year medical students: Evaluation of an elective literature and medicine course. Education for Health, 17(1), 73-84. https://doi.org/10.1080/13576280310001656196
Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 254-263. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497