Yoram Barak is a judge for the poetry competition Changing Minds: Memories Lost and Found, organised by the Dunedin Public Libraries and the Neurological Foundation of NZ. Find details on how to enter here.
I became aware of the importance of poetry through American poet Sharon Old’s poem, “Back Rub”. Originally published in her 1992 collection, The Father, the poem was reprinted in a special edition of The Lancet focused on Literature and Ageing. The poem chronicles the poet’s father’s dying, as well as her own process of acceptance and healing as she moves with him to his death and beyond.
In my work as a psychogeriatrician I often witness patients, caregivers, families and communities struggling through the journey of dementia as they are faced with the daunting loss of memory. Can poetry help us along that journey?
The loss of memories is experienced as the loss of “I”, of the core element of “self.” We grasp our sense of individual self and, in most Western cultures, push away the true meaning of impermanence. As dementia takes its toll we experience the impermanence of our memories and for most of us this is a horrifying insight. Poetry as a truly heroic attempt to capture the human condition is a major art form that can help transform the horrifying into the empathic.
The “I” in poetry is evasive, often fictional. Is it the poet’s voice that fills the poems, or some other? At its best, the “I” is a universal representation, one that expresses common themes to which most individuals can relate through their ordinary day-to-day experiences. What the poet actually experiences, the reader cannot know. Since writing poetry is often an act of discovery, one assumes that the poet’s true experience unfolds as she writes the poems and that poetic voices in addition to her own surface through her personal and impersonal unconscious. The poet and essayist Mary Oliver writes:
No poem is about one of us, or some of us, but is about all of us. It is part of a long document about the species. Every poem is about my life but also it is about your life, and a hundred thousand lives to come. That one person wrote it is not nearly so important or so interesting as that it pertains to us all.”
Poetry offers new experiences, not only to the reader of the poem, but also to the poet. Often poetry is a place not well known to us, but it is a place, Oliver asserts, “where some understanding about our lives is sought, even if it is not always found.”
There’s a special relationship between poetry and medicine, and great value that physicians, other healthcare professionals and patients could derive from making better use of this art form. Poetry can sharpen listening, attentiveness, observation, and analytical skills. It can refine the artistic side of medicine: poetry allows us to express ourselves, fosters creativity, and accepts ambiguity. It enhances empathy, self-awareness, and introspection. Poetry about illness includes addressing not only the symptoms of illness, but the experience, which includes emotions and responses.
We use various ways to share and validate our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual perspectives, commonly through written and spoken language. The interactions of physical and emotional spaces and silences between healthcare professional and patient, or between poem and reader, help us to define and interpret ourselves and others, and to direct thoughts, feelings, and actions. Communication thus improves. The poetic voice orders thoughts and allows for control, clarity, and reflection. It shapes our past narrative, and how we may construe our future narrative in the silence of lost memories.
Reading poetry lets an audience bear witness. That audience may be our loved one, the caretaker or the greater community. Poetry can serve as the witness for memories lost and for memories retained. Poetry is the highway to empathy with the human condition.
Associate Professor Yoram Barak MD, MHA, AffRANZC Psychiatry, teaches at the Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, New Zealand.
- Olds S. The Father. New York: Knopf, 1996.
- Oliver M. Blue Pastures. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
- Bromberg R. “Poetry and medicine.” Medscape J Med. 2008;10(3):63. Published 2008 Mar 14.
- Connelly, J. “Back Rub”: Reflections on Touch. The Lancet: Literature and Ageing. Vol 354. November, 1999.