Calling all creative nurses! I am currently compiling a New Zealand anthology of poetry by nurses, which is due to be published on International Nurses’ Day, 12 May 2017. Details of eligibility and how to submit your work can be found below.
“What does nursing have to do with poetry?” it might be asked. Do nurses write poetry? Do they read it? Most lovers of poetry are familiar with doctor poets and writers such as Dannie Abse, William Carlos Williams, Glenn Colqhoun, to cite a local example. But how many nurse poets do you know of?
Poetry and Nursing start on the back foot perhaps, when, from a purist perspective, “Medical Humanities” is not Nursing. Medicine and things medical are not nursing, although the broader concept of “Health and Humanities” a subtitle of this blog, seems apt.
Nursing is most famously defined by the nursing profession’s first well known writer, Florence Nightingale. Nursing Notes was published in 1860:
Nature alone cures… And what nursing has to do… is to put the patient in the best condition for nature to act upon him.”
Not very poetic really, but then Florrie was more of a theorist than a poet, and a staunchly practical, no nonsense woman by all accounts (including her own). Handy attributes for the ‘lady with the lamp’ to have in the tent hospitals of the Crimean War.
Nurses certainly appear as subjects in poems: often as angels of mercy, an image which does not sit well with modern nursing but one which persists and is readily perpetuated by popular media and literature:
Then there are the less flattering poems: A few lines from Philip Larkin’s poem The Building, for example:
…Every few minutes comes a kind of nurse to fetch someone away…”
A poem which many nurses in the English-speaking world know, or have read, or even have on their noticeboard in the nursing station, was always thought to have been written by an anonymous author and titled “Crabbit old woman”, but according to Matron Google, this poem was in fact written by a nurse, Phyllis McCormack, in 1966, and titled “Look closer nurse.”
What do you see nurse, what do you see?
Are you thinking when you’re looking at me?
A crabbit old woman, not very wise
Uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice, “I do wish you’d try”
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe
Who, resisting or not, lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill
Is that what you’re thinking, is that what you see?
Then open your eyes nurse, for you’re looking at me.
So far, not so good. Nurses are either written about by others as having a dark cruel streak or as angels of mercy and light. A poetical polarisation indeed.
But when nurses start writing about themselves—what it is to be a nurse, what is observed, felt, what moves them and what moves them to write—things become more real and more interesting. Such poetry can be found in anthologies of nursing poetry such as Between the Heartbeats, a 1995 American collection of poetry written by nurses. In it, nurses write about nursing. An excerpt from “The nurse’s task” by Cortney Davis opens:
“When I pluck the suture
Or pack the ulcer with gauze,
It becomes my task
To introduce rage to this body
That calls me, nurse, nurse,
As if my hands were gold…”
Some nurses of course will not always write about nursing or patients or what they see in their work. Some poets just happen to be nurses or closely aligned to nurses. One such person is the late Rachel Bush, a wonderful NZ poet, who, while not a nurse, was Poet in Residence at Wellington Hospital from September to December 2004 as part of the New Zealand Poetry Society’s ‘Poets in Workplaces’ scheme. In the April 2005 Poetry Society newsletter, Rachel wrote:
One of the reasons for the residency was that poems might help raise the morale of hard working nurses. After my twenty-four days in the hospital I admired nurses and midwives even more that I did before I started the residency. I am awed by their combination of professional skills and compassion, but this sort of respect is a very long way from even a half way decent poem. I like poems to be a discovery for me as well as recorded conversation or perhaps two or three lines that didn’t stretch to the right hand margin… The arts, including poetry are valuable in hospitals. Their presence is an acknowledgement that staff are more than a set of professional skills, and that patients are more than their sickness. In hard times the arts give us joy and help us to make sense of our situation. I hope there will be more artists, including poets, who have the privilege of the opportunity I was given to work in Wellington hospital.
And what of NZ nurse poets? The NZ health system is in desperate need… well, of many things… but certainly of poets. Making sense of working in that underfunded “we need to do more with less” (Minister of Health, 2010) environment on a daily basis may well drive many a nurse to the hard stuff: so why not poetry? As Rachel Bush says above, poetry humanises healthcare, strips back the language of bed stays, early discharge, needs assessments, waiting lists… a challenging environment which threatens to shape the nurse, when the nurse could be shaping the environment.
Dr Lorraine Ritchie: Lorraine Ritchie is currently a professional nursing adviser with the NZ Nurses’ Organisation. She has a strong interest in the link between the Arts and Health and has used poetry in teaching of both undergraduate and postgraduate nursing students. Her Master’s thesis looked at representations of older people in NZ short fiction and poetry.
Calling on all Creative Nurses out There!
The Art of nursing manifests itself in many forms. One of these is when nurses respond to their nursing work and experiences through writing about them. As part of the NZNO Visibility of Nursing campaign, an exciting opportunity has arisen to create an inaugural book of poetry written by NZ nurses.
If you wish to submit a poem or poems for consideration…
Please send your poem(s) and/or any enquiries to this email address Lorraine.email@example.com by 31st January 2017. Up to 3 poems may be submitted, and the poems can be very broad in subject matter – about nursing, nurses, the health system, patient experiences, wellness, illness, etc.
We look forward to receiving your creative responses. Poems may be previously published or unpublished, and should be no longer than 36 lines. Please include your name and email address as notification of successful inclusion in the collection will be by email only.