Poetry about medicine—particularly poetry about the body in relation to medicine—has gained a bit of a stronghold in the academic spotlight in recent years. Health humanities journals are cropping up at universities in the U.S. and Canada, including UNC’s brand new Health Humanities Journal, which launched this past year. There is also a small cluster of medical journals that publish poems, including Annals of Internal Medicine; Chest; Families, Systems, & Health, and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). JAMA actually has a weekly Poetry and Medicine feature where readers can “explore poems in JAMA written by artists and physicians to address the experience and meanings of healing and illness” for free (“Poetry”). The value of poetry increases in the public’s eye when it is given such high priority as to become a mainstay in a medical journal, particularly a medical journal with an extensive readership and so much influence in and on the medical field. As Alastair Gee pointed out in her New Yorker article “Ode on a Stethoscope”, a medical journal generates a fascinating context within which poetry can work:
Gee goes on to say the opposing natures of poetry and medicine breed a type of discomfort, but I would argue that poetry’s desire to explore possibilities makes it an excellent medium for the depiction of experience within medical frameworks.
[The poems] appear alongside scientific studies—accounts of double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials and the like—pieces of writing that are models of rationality and logic, and that require stripped-down, clinical language and do away with anecdote and allusiveness. In these studies, which often follow a rigorous structure—introduction, methodology, results, conclusion—“you narrow the amount of interpretability in what you’re saying,” Charlene Breedlove, the poetry editor at JAMA, [has said]. Poetry, by contrast, “moves in the opposite direction—it moves to open the possibilities of language. It wants to explore unnoticed possibilities. (Paragraph 6)
Poetry is an excellent medium for depicting medicine and medical experience because the experience of poetry is so strongly tied to the body. The reciting of poetry was originally an oral practice. Bards memorized poems and presented them in full while others listened. Understanding a poem presented in such a way takes conscious and prolonged mental and physical effort: listeners needed to be sitting still and paying attention so as to understand the content and appreciate the masterful form of its presentation. Although poetry is now written down and read like other literary mediums, it is still true that the only way to read a poem is to speak it. Unlike prose narrators who speak to the reader in order to dictate the story, poems require us to become the speaker of the poem. We have to bring the poem into our body and let the person who wrote it shape the vibrations of that body. Such a physical act gives poetry greater claim on bodily intimacy than other mediums as we mimic the speaker’s words with our own physique. antiBODY is interested in contemporary depictions of this poetry-medicine-body intersection, particularly in light of modern treatments for illness that result from the technological advancements in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
The relentless advance of medical technology is, like the fields of poetry and medicine, dichotomous: developments move doctors successfully toward the extension of life, and by so doing they simultaneously create an atmosphere in which overtreatment and medical futility are forces to be grappled with for both practitioners and patients. The progress of medical technology opens the door to a fascinating subsection of the poetry-illness-body intersection, because poetry can examine the limitations inherent in medicine—limitations that have consequences for real people searching for relief. Danielle Ofri, author and Associate Professor of Medicine at New York University writes:
Medicine seeks to address illness, but illness cannot be fully addressed because individuals all experience it differently. There is always someone defying survival rates or not conforming to success statistics, and poetry can pick up where medicine leaves off. Illness narratives written in prose can help patients reclaim their voice, but the conventions of poetry can go a step further in depicting illness because poetry has a higher tolerance for space and ambiguity. Poetry may be a finer instrument of feeling than prose because of its heightened rhetoric and rhythm. Contemporary poetry is very much sentence-based like other writing, but use of the line can help introduce more pattern and variation than prose, adding to the surprise and intensity of description.
For all the reductionist scientific advances in medicine, illness is still profoundly illogical and mysterious. Despite its complexity, the human body is primed to work perfectly, and our reliance on this effortless functioning is our primordial defense mechanism for survival. When the body breaks down, we are literally rendered speechless, but poetry is one of the ways that we reclaim our voice. The loosened and limitless reigns of poetry make it particularly susceptible to, and reflective of, the warp and weave of illness. (316–317)
That’s not to say poetry is the only answer for understanding the liminal space of illness; illness will still evade poetry on some level. Quoting Ofri again, “It is impossible to tease out the precise effects of illness on poetry because it is impossible to conduct a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial” (316). However, even though poetry isn’t as popular an artform as prose or TV or other products of popular culture, it still holds an exalted place, even in a culture that ignores it. Poetry is comprised of a denser, more affective language than normal speech that requires a slower, more prolonged exercise of attention. And in a world that is totally fragmented with overstimulation (cell phones, device screens, etc.) it’s harder and harder for people to slow down enough to speak a poem. That may be why people who get sick turn to poetry: because their bodies have broken down and they are forced to slow down. Waiting rooms, treatment plans, medication testing—all of these facets of medicinal experience (and others) become shared experiences, and readers want representations of experience that are like their own. They also want to write it.
To attempt a pure depiction of the human suffering would be an exercise in futility, but poetry’s ability to embody more than exists on the surface allows it to approach closer than any other genre. As explained by Furman and colleagues:
In the context of poetry and medicine, modern medicine has made it possible for the internal and external worlds spoken of to be housed in one literal body. Medical apparatuses of many kinds can be utilized to assist, supplement, or even replace human body parts. In terms of how they connect to the body these apparatuses range from fully visible instruments (i.e. colostomy bags and EpiPens) to subcutaneous implants (i.e. Mediports and pacemakers) to permanent internal devices (IUDs and coronary stents), and even some combinations (i.e. ventricular assist devices with external batteries). The experience of treatment via devices is in continual flux as new technologies are developed, but illness maintains its edge as each patient and case are unique. While apparatuses help in many ways, they also change the body in particular ways.
Poetry is a means by which people encounter, engage with, and express perceptions of their internal and external worlds and commit these perceptions to written or spoken word. Through the creation of a poem, the poet seeks a truth that perhaps transcends how we typically view truth. That is, poetic truth is not only judged by a poem’s capacity to meaningfully symbolize and express something encountered in the internal and external worlds, but is also judged by its capacity to meaningfully express the relationship between the poet and his or her internal or external worlds. In this sense, poems can also be an exploration into the complex interactions between people and their environments. (332)
Once an apparatus is introduced, the human body becomes fragmented and subject to modification, resulting in an expansion of the definition of human experience because the body ceases to be a self-contained entity. The human body transforms into a conglomeration that mirrors the individual nature of lived human experience. Much in the same way outsiders may view a poem as prose narrative chopped into pieces, medical technology interrupts the original flow of bodily function. In literary terms, patients that uses temporary or permanent medical apparatuses fall into the realm of “posthumanism.” In her book about virtual bodies N. Katherine Hayles says, “The posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (3). Rephrasing in relation to poetry and medicine, patients in contact with medical apparatus are more susceptible to being viewed or described in terms of their piecemeal parts rather as a singular entity. The body goes from being a self-governed whole to a disjointed environment where pieces are both open to modification and viewed in relation to each other. Needless to say, this new relational body is difficult to describe, which exacerbates the already-complicated question of how to depict and explain illness in writing. With outside machinery now affecting internal experience, poetry becomes even more important as a means of expression—not because it is better than other mediums of expression, but because it provides a more focused and expressive way of doing what all narratives do: creating community.
It is my hope that antiBODY will create community; connecting poets, patients, practitioners, and others; and framing antiBODY as an anthology is fitting because it will embody the idea that a whole is more than the sum of its parts. The human body is unique in its ability to generate meaning from experience, and adding technologically advanced apparatuses in many ways makes wider the gap we attempt to bridge between individuals and experience. These apparatuses have the potential to enhance or even expand human experience, and the poems included work individually and collectively to help us embrace the intangible without needing to delineate its parameters. As a literary medium, poetry has the capacity to depict relationships of all kinds, even those that are difficult to rectify when placed together. Illness and pain have a centripetal effect on those who experience them, forcing us to look inward and driving us away from language and community. It is my hope antiBODY will counter that centripetal force with an equal or more powerful centrifugal force to drive readers and writers past the pain and into lived and shared bodily experience, to push beyond the body and not just into it.
1 - Gee, Alastair. “Ode on a Stethoscope.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 14 Jan. 2015. Web. 1 Mar. 2018. < https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/ode-stethoscope>.
2 - Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
3 - Menchaca, Frank. “Varieties of Poetry Publishing and Aesthetics on the Internet.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006. DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0009.107.
4 - Mukand, Jon, editor. Articulations: The Body and Illness in Poetry. University of Iowa Press, 1994.
5 - Ofri, Danielle. “The Debilitated Muse: Poetry in the Face of Illness.” Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 31, 2010, 303–317.
6 - “Poetry and Medicine.” The JAMA Network, https://jamanetwork.com/collections/44062/poetry-and-medicine. Accessed 1 February 2018.
7 - Salcman, Michael and Michael Collier, editors. Poetry in Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness, and Healing. Persea, 2015.
8 - Wagner, Corinna and Andy Brown, editors. A Body of Work: An Anthology of Poetry and Medicine. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
9 - Yang, Binbin. Women and the Aesthetics of Illness: Poetry on Illness by Qing-Dynasty Women Poets. Dissertation, Washington University, 2007.