Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The healing power of words

Rebuilding your personal identity after a serious relationship breakup can be like assembling a piece of IKEA furniture, argues Ethan Kuperberg in a humorous one-page article in the September 12 issue of The New Yorker titled 'How to put your Sëlf together.'  Leaving your Sëlf unattended during re-assembly "can result in injury, error, or [worst of all] poetry."  So should doctors have anything to do with this traumatic consequence called poetry?

To our ears poetry is foreign although in other times and places it was familiar. It is not the language of business, politics or science.  Instead it links to art, drama, sculpture, and music, especially to song.  It enables feelings of love and loss, of ecstasy and sadness not easily otherwise expressed to find a voice. The contrast of prose and poetry is incomplete and prose can of course be brilliant as a vehicle to carry these feelings.  Also, overlap occurs between prose and poetry, and 'prose poetry' follows. But poetry has unusual strength for this communication.

Because there are many forms of poetry - long and short, rhyming (simple or complicated), tightly disciplined or free, inscrutable or accessible, concrete or abstract - there are many definitions, none entirely satisfactory. Despite the variety in poetry and its definitions, several common features can make it attractive to doctors.

First, poetry can express our deep feelings when patients or family or friends suffer and die. It enables these feelings to be explored, articulated and shared without the heavy transactional processes of prose. Doctors whose encounters with death and suffering are common and profound use poetry to express their feelings. Patients and carers do likewise.

Second, poetry can enable the expression of achievement - liberation, cure, safe birth, the lifting of depression - that are not enumerated in key performance indicators that tend to reflect processes and financial efficiency expectations of the clinician. It can share an elemental connection to love and happiness that bypasses the bureaucracy of measurement and computation.

Third, poetry reveals deep things about the shy poet and his or her subject that he or she would find difficult otherwise to share, uncovering the soul in its naked austerity.  Not all doctors are extroverts, not all express their feelings openly. They may be more comfortable speaking from behind the veil of poetry.

It is a mistake to think that poetry is simply random jottings that require little effort. In fact, it is an art form that carries its own discipline like learning a musical instrument. I have benefitted from membership in a poetry writing group that meets each week with an expert tutor to share poetry and critique one another's efforts.  I have come to enjoy the way poetry makes me consider and savour each word, and the fellowship of poets from different backgrounds. It is rich in metaphor, analogy and simile and light on description, depending more on evocation, suggestion and impression. 

The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney had a brilliant talent for turning words, like diamonds, through ten or more degrees allowing the light to diffract into new colours, astonishing the reader with their novelty. Take for example the first stanza, especially its brilliant last line of his poem 'The Sharping Stone':

In an apothecary's chest of drawers,
Sweet cedar that we'd purchased second hand,
In one of its weighty deep-sliding recesses
I found the sharping stone that was to be
Our gift to him. Still in its wrapping paper
Like a baton of black light I'd failed to pass.

Poetry allows me to search my mind for interpretations of events and people that are not immediately obvious.  Others might access these insights through meditation, but for me, sitting at the laptop with no more than the germ of an idea of the poem and then watching it emerge, expands my understanding of those events and people.

The Scandinavian Nobel laureate poet Tomas Tranströmer suffered a devastating stroke in 1990, leaving him hemiplegic and without speech.  His recovery was gradual and never complete, but he returned to playing the piano with his left hand. He returned to writing short poems.  I wondered about his experience - lived as it were from the inside.  So I wrote a poem, beginning with the confusion and disorientation of the acute phase of his CVA, as he might have experienced it. I tried to use his voice, his style, for this purpose. One snippet of this quite long poem, The Stroke of One, reads:

In a flash my spirit
was caught like a fish in a net,
my flesh pulled and spun
through an unfamiliar deep.

I do not claim that this poetic exploration was helpful to anyone, least of all Tranströmer, but I feel differently about the stroke experience as a result.  Maybe that makes me a better person to understand strokes in others or in myself if I were to suffer this fate.  You can find the complete poem on my poetry blog Stephenleeder.blogspot.com.au along with others from recent years.

Although I do not have the epidemiological evidence, it is said that poets are miserable people who often end their lives by suicide. The search for meaning and interpretation that underlies much poetry can be a manifestation of human alienation or depression.  But as a counterweight, read Shakespeare's sonnets or the Psalms of Degrees.  

As with art, drama and music, there is room for the expression of great happiness in poetry. The process of poetic reflection mines happiness from our unconscious like precious ore - it is free and for our pleasure!

Published in Australian Doctor 28 September 2016  http://bit.ly/2cBvJqm

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