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Poetry and medicine may appear an unnatural partnership and it is thought by some that poetry on medical subjects is a modern development. However there is a tradition linking poetry and medicine at least as old as the ancient Greeks. Their God Apollo was associated with medicine and healing, poetry, music and dance. Formal discussion of medical themes in poetry dates at least to the Roman poet Lucretius, writing in the first century BC. The scientific and philosophical subjects he covered in his 6 book treatise on the nature of things, De rerum natura,1 include discussion of biological processes such as digestion and sleep (Book 4), and a harrowing account of plague (Book 6).
In the two thousand years since Lucretius, poetry has included medical subjects of every description, from Robert Burns's ‘Address to the Tooth-Ache’, to the Australian poet A. D. Hope's 1967 ‘On an Engraving by Casserius’, to Philip Larkin's observation of ambulances going about their daily missions in the streets where we all live. Burns's curse must have been echoed by many toothache sufferers down the years:
My curse on your envenom'd stang …
Wi' gnawing vengeance;
Tearing my nerves wi' bitter twang,
Like racking engines.
Hope's interest, on the other hand, is not in the pains of the individual patient but in a milestone in the history of modern anatomy. His poem, characteristically erudite, is about an engraving in the Nova Anatomia of the great sixteenth-century Italian anatomist Giulio Casserio. It illustrates, for the first time in medical science, the unborn child within the mother's womb.
The experience of death has been a universal constant in the poetries of every culture, and in the elegiac tradition feelings of grief, mourning and loss (rather than the nature of a disease) are in the foreground—the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn wrote an entire book of poems2 in memory of his first wife, who died of cancer in 1981. Elsewhere, though, it is the progress of the disease itself that is the subject. In Raymond Carver's ‘What the Doctor Said’, the American writer describes the moment of diagnosis:
He said it doesn't look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them…
Active engagement in writing and publishing poetry as therapy has a long tradition. For example, mental patients at the Pennsylvania Hospital, in the USA, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751, were encouraged by Dr Benjamin Rush (1745–1813) to write poems which they published in their own newspaper, The Illuminator. Since the 1950s, poetry as therapy has emerged as a new certified profession, initially focussing on mental health. Recent years have seen a substantial growth in interest in the beneficial impact that poetry may have in a wide range of medical disorders, both for patients and for their family and friends, not only in the reading but also in the writing of poems.
Burns and Hope, Larkin, Dunn and Carver all have in common that they are professional writers describing an aspect of medical experience that has had an impact on their lives, whether immediate and personal, or researched. Many others who are given a life-changing diagnosis, or find themselves at the hospital bedside of a loved one, or have many other reasons as health professionals or members of the public for wanting to write on a medical subject of one kind or another, may well approach the thought of putting their feelings into words, and indeed into poetry, rather daunting at first.
The Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine and the University of Warwick's Institute of Advanced Study are jointly supporting the launch of the new annual International Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.3 This Prize aims to encourage interest both among poetry and health professionals, and the public, in the inter-related themes of poetry inspired by illness, by medical subjects and poetry as therapy. The prize will run in tandem with an annual International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine4 exploring academic aspects of the impact of illness on the poet, health and disease as themes in poetry and the evolution of poetry therapy as a clinical and academic discipline.
Broadcaster, journalist and writer James Naughtie, NHS Medical Director Professor Sir Bruce Keogh and poet and doctor Dannie Abse will judge the initial national and international medical Hippocrates poetry awards, with a £15 000 fund for the 2010 prize, which will be divided between an ‘open’ category which any national or international member of the public may enter and in an ‘NHS’ category open to current and former National Health Service-related employees and health students.
The Prize will be for unpublished poems in English by living poets, with ‘medical’ to be interpreted in the widest sense. This includes the nature of the body and anatomy; the history, evolution, current and future state of medical science; the nature and experience of tests; the experience of doctors, nurses and other staff in hospitals and in the community. Other topics might include the experience of patients, families, friends and carers; the experiences of acute and long-term illness and dying, of birth, of cure and convalescence; the patient journey; the nature and experience of treatment with herbs, chemicals and devices used in medicine.
The 2010 Hippocrates Prize awards will be announced on 10th April 2010 during the first of these International Symposia on Poetry and Medicine,4 at which the Australian doctor and award-winning poet Peter Goldsworthy will be the keynote speaker. Winning entries will be published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, all winning and commended poems will be published in a book and highest ranked entries will also be published electronically on the Hippocrates Prize website.3
Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
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