Poetry: Who Cares?

March 21, 2016 | Adam Clay .

Stress and our characteristic response to it often leads to a kind of splintering in which we alienate a part of ourselves so that we can continue to function. The classic compartmentalization that many health care providers practice in order to wall off distressing or toxic experiences so that they do not ‘‘contaminate’’ the rest of their lives can, over time, lead to self-alienation and burnout. (…) Indeed, we are more likely to harm ourselves and others when we are splintered than when we are awake to our own pain and challenging experiences. Poetry has a special capacity to facilitate the reintegration of ignored aspects of ourselves so that we can again function as whole, fully integrated persons. (PSCPC, 1394)

It does not require a lot of imagination to understand that hospitals can be stressful places where it may be hard, yet necessary, to ‘be strong’ and ‘soldier on.’ So what is it about poetry that can help us deal with stress and with difficult, splintering experiences that have been unacknowledged or unaddressed, “so that we can again function as a whole”?

Compared to more ordinary uses of language, poetry allows meaning to arise in different and more subtle ways, including through the sounds, associations, imagery, and even the layout of words. Poetry thus “has the unique ability to express emotional experiences that the listener of the poetry has known but may have never before articulated” (ibid.). Poems also do not always make immediate sense to their readers and are open to many interpretations; although this complexity can be puzzling, the same can be said of our lives, and poetry acknowledges this. As another article puts it: “Because poetry comes close to being able to express the inexpressible, it may provide a voice for levels of experience and meaning that cannot be captured by reasoning or ordinary discussion” (HHPPC, 384-385). Moreover, the specificity and complexity of a poem “often requires patience and respect” (HHPPC, 386), a requirement that can lead us to see other things or people in our lives that perhaps beg us for attention or care, and call for more than swift and straightforward reactions.

In poems, lives, and hospitals, there are indeed often more complex relationships, more layers of meaning than what meets the ‘no-nonsense’, efficiency-minded eye, as the following extract explains:

In 1910 William Osler (…) noted that while his colleagues viewed the practices and paraphernalia that filled Johns Hopkins Hospital as objective and scientific, patients inevitably experienced the same items as a vast network of symbols that promote healing. Consider our contemporary hospitals—the white coats, stethoscopes, and beepers. The ritual of daily rounds. The ceremony of physical examination. (…) Every one of these procedures, whatever its intended scientific effect, is also a symbol that bestows meaning. (HHPPC, 384)

Likewise, the smell of a hospital corridor can either reassure or unsettle. Whether we like it or not, things and events, like words in a poem, conjure emotions, evoke images, aggregate meaning and are constantly interpreted, more or less consciously. This reality, which poetry reflects, makes us all, to a certain extent, poets, as Ralph Waldo Emerson argued in the 1840s:

See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure which came into credit God knows how (…) shall make the blood tingle under the rudest or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics! (E, 267-8)

Thus, even if you do not care about poetry, perhaps poetry can help you take better care of yourself and others precisely because, even if you are not much into poetry, poetry is very much in you.


About Adam

With a focus on Heidegger and Emerson, Adam’s PhD looks at how poetry implies care. Beyond his interests in such areas where philosophy and literature intersect, Adam is an enthusiastic and qualified language teacher with three nationalities (French, English and Polish). He is also skilled in Aikido and enjoys photography.

Edited by Sarah Stewart and Bridget Moynihan.

Works Cited

PSCPC:  Radwany, Steven, et al. “Poetry as Self-Care and Palliative Care.” Journal of Palliative Medicine. 15.12 (2012): 1394-5. Web. 18 March 2016.

HHPPC: Coulehan, Jack and Clary Paterson. “Healing the Healer: Poetry in Palliative Care.” Journal of Palliative Medicine. 8.2 (2005): 382-89. Web. 18 March 2016.

E:  Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Selected Essays. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2003. Print.

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