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Found Poetry? No shit! / 24 November 2014

I talked in my last post about my found poems from NHS materials.

To be honest, part of the pleasure of this to me has been that I do like the dark attraction of medical materials.  I enjoy old surgical textbooks with the frontispiece illustrations where you can fold back the skin to reveal the muscular structure underneath, and continue to reveal layer on layer of meticulously drawn anatomical detail.  And when my partner and I visited Paris, the place I was most insistent on visiting was the extraordinary Musee Fragonard d’Alfort.

So how could I resist the opportunity to create poems with titles like ‘Gum Disease’, ‘Attaching the Leg Drainage Bag’  and  ‘What is a Colonoscopy?’

But the project has also had a purely linguistic interest. There are some distinctive features of the way language is used within the NHS that make it particularly suited to this treatment.  

The first is what one might call avoidance of the demotic, the lack of the way that ordinary people speak. Language is either Latinate, using technical medical terminology, or it is childish and patronising. Doctors talk about ‘faeces’, nurses and care workers talk about ‘poo’ or ‘Number Two’, but no-one in this curious world ever just has a shit.

We get given a lot of information materials, which tend to be of high quality. But they do have the slightly unusual feature that they talk calmly and clearly about things that no-one in the everyday world would feel at all calm or clear about.  I’ve taken advantage of this peculiarity in poems such as ‘Diminished need for food and drink’.

Many letters within the NHS, particularly letters from consultants, have the function of creating a record to be added to the case notes.  This gives them the curious characteristic that they are written for someone other than the person they are addressed to.  So if you are the person the letter is addressed to, you will find that it tells you all sorts of things you already know.

A lot of NHS written material is quite banal.  One has to search through a lot of purely functional material to find the nuggets of poetry.  But not all that looks blandly functional is what it appears.  There’s a particular pleasure in discovering, for example, how a poem can bring out the passive-aggressive undercurrent of an appointments letter.

I haven’t yet managed to create a poem exploring what might be called the ‘medical pop’. This piece of vocabulary is so widespread that students must get taught it at medical school: ‘Pop up on the couch’, ‘pop your shoes off’ ‘I’ll just pop this in your mouth’.  (Someday I’d like to write a script about a doctor performing acts that get him struck off: ‘Pop your clothes off and I’ll just pop this in here...’)  

Given that the same three letters provide nineteen different medical acronyms, you might think this betokens a certain lack of linguistic creativity.  Unfortunately, it does seem to be purely a spoken mannerism.

I do sometimes create found poems from other sources.  Unfortunately, Colin Hambrook, editor of DAO (who was present at one of my meetings with John) suggested that the NHS poems constituted such a unified group that other found poems would seem out of place. On reflection, I decided that he was right. So here’s a poem that didn’t make the cut.

(The hundred most common words in English, in order of frequency.)

The be to of and a
in that have I it
for, not on, with he
as you do.

At this but his
by from they, we say.
Her, she or an
will my one all.

Would there?
(Their what?)
So up, out,
if about.

Who get which, go me.
When make, can.
Like time, no?
Just him know.

Take person into year.
Your good. (Some could.)
Them see other than then.
Now look.

Only come
its over.
Think also.
Back after use two.

How our work first
well way
even new.
Want because. 

Any these give day most us.

(Source: Wikipedia entry ‘Most common words in English’, which draws on an analysis of the Oxford English Corpus by Oxford Online, associated with the Oxford English Dictionary.)

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