Poetry – home to complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty

I am delighted to share that my undergraduate dissertation “Understanding patients’ narratives” A qualitative study of osteopathic educators’ opinions about using Medical Humanities poetry in undergraduate education has been published in the International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine. Link below (open access until 29th June 2021): https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1d2Ry6D0fPoY43

. . .

Why poetry?

During my first narrative medicine semester at Columbia University, Dr Rita Charon said golden words that patients speak in poetry and when we listen to our patients’ narratives, we listen for the truth in language. I couldn’t help but feel warmth around my heart as I recognised the astonishing parallel to my undergraduate research paper.

Human beings speak in poems. My pain is walking all over me / I don’t know how to describe this experience, if it was music it would be like Black Sabbath, do you know what I mean? / it’s like it’s hidden in the parts of me that don’t want to be found – are just some of the verbal verses I heard in my clinic recently. When we, as healthcare providers, ask people to describe or explain their painful/illness experiences, we are asking them to summon their world into being; to give concrete expression to something that is novel and unbeknown to them, something that can feel elusive and, as many writers from Virginia Woolf to Elaine Scarry pointed out, is oftentimes utterly resistant to verbal language. This is not an easy thing to do.

Poetry as a medium brings ontological questions to the surface, questions like: What is a person? What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to suffer? And these questions matter to all of us, regardless of what our medical/healthcare speciality might be.

Unlike prose that often hinges on narrative predictions, poetry offers continual surprise through its unique blend of imagery, mood, metaphors, synesthesia. Poetry refrains from describing and explaining, it simply says This is… – and from this point we are already sucked into the world of feeling, seeing, experiencing, remembering.

For me, poetry has always been about paying a different kind of attention… About activism and social justice, about personal voices as well as communal, about the power of imaginative thinking and (self) compassion. Poetry saved lives, gave voices to oppressed, connected humans through centuries and across cultures, it shaped languages and built nations. If it wasn’t for Dante’s La Comedia Divina, there would be no Italian language in the shape and form we know it today! Pushkin not only created modern Russian language, but invented literary genres so that ordinary Russian people can express their voices. If Rilke didn’t listen to Rodin and went to the Jardin des Plantes to stare at the poor animal until he was unable to do anything else but to write about it, he would have never found a way to express how it felt to live trapped in one’s own body. And many others wouldn’t have felt seen by reading his poem. 

Poetry makes us feel seen and by making us feel seen, it makes us feel connected. It reminds us of our shared vulnerability and humanity.

Poetry also makes us feel uncomfortable. By entering the world of a poem, one enters a world of infinite complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. A scary territory of vulnerability, felt-ness, and recognition. There is no logic in poetry! I have always thought in order to study creative (and therefore critical) thinking, one should read Rimbaud, Lorca, Lorde, Akhmatova, Plath…

Because of all this, poetry is like life itself (another pearl from Dr. Charon): initially plotless; feels better when you truly surrender to it; it lives and gets born in the body; it is personal and shared but never, ever general! 

Read & write poetry, the world needs it!


Published by shapingstoriestogether

Osteopath and Narrative Medicine scholar-in-becoming

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