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What Clinicians Can Learn From Poetry

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The first time I performed poetry to an audience, I was in an auditorium filled with hundreds of people. The poem was about unity — that the blood coursing through our veins bonds us stronger than the bodies of water that divide us. I was incredibly nervous to be performing for an audience that large. However, the moment I began speaking, a deafening silence overtook the room and I could feel everyone being pulled into my gravity. The weight of the moment hung pregnant in silence. Ever since then, I have been enthralled not only by what poetry can do in sharing a message, but what spoken word — otherwise known as performance poetry — can do to stir the hearts of all who bear witness to it.

The power of poetry’s use in medicine is in the way it speaks to the humanity of all of us; in poetry is the unparalleled ability to cut through medical jargon and speak to our hopes, wonderment, grief, joy, and even anger in the face of illness. The use of poetry in medicine has been documented as far back as the 12th century – physician Ibn Sina wrote a poem of 1326 verses that summarized medical knowledge of the Islamic world that then became the main method of dissemination of medical knowledge into medieval Europe. Currently, poetry is increasingly incorporated into medical education through medical humanities and narrative medicine – the idea that literature can be used as a medium to engage in the practices of attention, affiliation, and representation to encourage the empathetic and competent practice of healing. This effort is in large part a response to the Flexner report, which led to years of teaching the biomedical models of medicine, leaving medical education and physicians devoid of the humanistic aspects of medicine. 

Spoken word pushes the concept of human connection even further. It forces the poet to think of not only the story and emotions they wish to express through their words, but how these words sound in the ears of others. What rhythms can be built in this storytelling, what tension can be crafted in silence after a verse, how can the listener be drawn in through speaking quietly, how you can push one away from speaking more loudly, how you can journey together through an experience – these are all elements spoken word utilizes to convey a message. It forces the listener to embrace every aspect as a lesson. 

The writer, Anatole Broyard, once diagnosed with prostate cancer, tackled his mortality by writing about his life and his interactions with his doctors. He said: “My ideal doctor would be my Virgil, leading me through my purgatory or inferno, pointing out the sights as we go … Inside every patient, there's a poet trying to get out. My ideal doctor would ’read’ my poetry, my literature. He would see that my sickness has purified me, weakening my worst parts and strengthening the best.” When I think back to what it feels like to be in front of a microphone sharing a poem to an audience, I think of the strength of connection in that room, built from shared experiences and shared emotions expressed through craft and vulnerability. In medicine, a single encounter can be boiled down to an encounter between two humans – one who is trying to extract important information, and the other who is filtering what they believe to be important information. If we are not finely attuned to it, much of our histories are left in the silences of unspoken moments, in sentences that convey an alternate meaning, in the physical actions of the person we are listening to.

These are the lessons spoken word poetry can provide medical practitioners: the ability to hear not only what patients are saying, but how they are saying it. What metaphors litter their expressions of illness? What silences should you learn to push into? What is the rhythm you must dance to in order to understand the beats? What is it that they are truly trying to express to you – how can you be their Virgil, pointing out the sights as you go?

I scribble verses in the back of my patient lists – lines that come to me throughout busy days in brief moments of inspiration, situations that have provoked deep reflection and thought, moments in which I have learned something and lost something. It is the pieces of my humanity that I carry with me. When I collect enough of them to be composed into pieces, I share them. Always comes the silence, the nods, the resounding me too. I like to think that poetry is universal because it exists within us – it’s just a matter of listening for it, crafting it, and sharing it. 

Do you write or read poetry? How has it helped you with patients? Share your experiences, or favorite poems, in the comments below.

Dr. Zainab Mabizari is an internal medicine resident in the social medicine residency at Montefiore. She completed her medical education at Baylor College of Medicine and received a master’s in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University. Pandemic permitting, you can often find her reading in a coffee shop or performing poetry at a local open mic. She is a 2020–2021 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Illustration by Diana Connolly

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