I recently attended a cancer conference that included a session on doctors who write poetry. How strange, I thought, that physicians were also poets. I was curious about their slant, wondering if their writings would be gory or graphic. Would they sound estranged from their patients or sensitive? Would the writings be technical or melodic? What surprised me was how deeply they considered their role in the lives of their patients and how they felt compelled to express that relationship in beautiful, haunting, words carefully chosen as though shaping the notes of a sonata.
For them, literature had become the counter-veiling force to a life in service to the ill and diseased. As I listened and read, my sense of doctors reshaped itself and I heard for the first time their fears, their regrets, their prayer for miracles or peace in its absence.
One presenter was Danielle Ofri, M.D., Ph.D. DLtt (Hon), FACP, Associate Professor of Medicine, New York University School of Medicine. She read about holding the hand of a young woman who might not awaken from her surgery and the responsibility of being the keeper of the woman’s last words, last connection, and final smile with pleading in her eyes. Dr Ofri lamented the patient’s incomplete goodbye told to a stranger, a poor substitute for a family member or friend. But such was the situation with her and countless others who found themselves in a hospital seriously ill and unable to make ones ends meet in the end.
The other presenter, neurosurgeon-poet Michael Salcman, M.D., spoke of “physician-poets” who had written poetry for centuries, so prolific that there are anthologies of their works, collections of genres inside of genres. Some speak of heroism and joy while others reflect the great human suffering that physicians are exposed to in their practice. Some speak of death, reflecting events that brought it on such as war or poverty or other human conditions that medicine could not cure. Others weave the story of life in intricate patterns around birth and breath and love and kindness.
One of the most famous physician-poets is John Keats, considered among the greatest English poets of the 19th century.