The International Symposium and Hippocrates Awards for Poetry and Medicine took place at Wellcome Collection, London on 12 May. Nicole Fordham Hodges was there to experience a mind-twisting variety of perspectives on the subject.
Doctors and academics, poets and nurses, cancer patients and literary scholars mingle together in the underground lecture theatre at the Wellcome Trust. The symposium is to culminate in the Hippocrates Awards for Poetry and Medicine. The top prize, at £5000, is one of the largest for a single poem anywhere in the world.
References to syphilis in Greek poetry; a chilling collection of haiku based on the organ retention scandal at Alder Hey Childrens' Hospital; the inspired - or comical - use of poetry to teach empathy in medical training: this is an eclectic day.
What place does poetry have in healthcare? Its metaphors can be a shortcut to explore complexity and doubt; they work in layers to translate the human experience. Poetry can help doctors remain empathetic. For poets, keeping close to the language of the body can help them stay real. A 'patient' or 'sufferer' can be empowered or empower others by finding and crafting a metaphor for their experience. Syphilis even was described by the Greek poet Kavvadis as "the great medal" and a sign of sexual liberation.
That said, I felt the symposium and awards suffered generally from a lack of the patient's perspective. One of the exceptions was guest poet Jo Shapcott who read from her Costa Award winning collection Of Mutability. She writes of unexpected joys and beauties within her experience of breast cancer: "Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets/ angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye". However even she keeps her focus skyward rather than risk direct confrontation with an illness she doesn't name: "Don't trouble, though, to head anywhere but the sky".
Many of the poems commended for the prize focused on the paraphernalia of medicine. In Los Subiros by Shelley Mcallister, for example, "dilators, clamps, forceps, hooks, retractors, hemostats" are painstakingly carried up to a hospital on a mountain. Could this focus on the 'stuff' of healthcare be seen as an avoidance of deeper issues? As Jane Kirwan says of psychiatric patient and poet Mr Blatny in her memorable poem Mr Blatny Perseveres, "What he wants is nearer than anything they suggest".
Natalie Ann Holborow's imagistic poem Ana and I penetrates closer to the lived experience of illness. In this case anorexia. "Our two blue hands, stuffing dead toast/ into plant pots. In bathtubs/ we float like dead oak leaves".
Doctors and poets are united in the need to balance insight and empathy with the need to remain detached and controlled. Careful by Kathleen M Kelley is a sestina about keeping professional distance from patients, looking away when appropriate "careful/ to look down… careful/ to forget that we are sometimes the patients/ we all take turns at being human". The poem perfectly utilises its careful form and carries it with beautiful awkwardness.
All the best poetry here is painfully aware that "we all take turns at being human". Roles are, like sestinas, careful selective constructions in danger of breaking down. The poems where roles become blurred seem to me the most powerful. Alice Malin's District Nurse for example, who can’t shake off the image of her elderly patient as a young girl, as the poem takes an unexpected turn towards sensuality and emotional entanglement.
In another outstanding sestina, Rose Shepperd's Tomorrow Will be a Day Beloved of your Father and of You, the poet uses a mystical vocabulary and a sinister control of the form to describe – or avoid describing – a father's moment of death. The poem steers a blinkered course around set end words to chillingly illuminate an absence, which is not directly faced.
The Hippocrates prize, which is now in its third year, is a wonderful initiative and itself award winning. It brings different perspectives and trainings together, looks at things sideways which are hard to look at directly. I would like to see these awards grow to include more of the perspective of people with illnesses. The lived experience of illness needs to be fully shared. We all take turns at being human.
Attending the symposium also shook up my preconceptions of doctors. A doctor can be, as Richard Berlin writes in the meditative A Lobsterman Looks at the Sea, "like a man who has spent sixty years/ on a lobster boat, watching the world/ swim fast and shining, right before his eyes".
The 2012 winners are:
Open International Awards:
1st Prize: Women’s Work - Mary Bush, Celina, Texas
2nd Prize: Los Subiros - Shelley McAlister, Isle of Wight
3rd Prize: The Edwin Smith Papyrus - Kelly Grovier, Aberystwyth
1st Prize: Claybury - Nick MacKinnon, Winchester
2nd Prize: Allogeneic - Andy Jackson, Dundee
3rd Prize: Mr Blatný Perseveres - Jane Kirwan, London/Prague
Entries are open for next year's Hippocrates Awards. As in previous years, there are Open and NHS catagories, both with a top prize of £5000.
An anthology of winning and commended poems can be ordered for £10 from the University of Warwick.