Prose lovers already embrace the assertion that poetry is medicine.
Now the medical world is catching on to the potential healing powers of reading and writing poems. At the HealthPartners Como Clinic in St. Paul, a doctor and a health coach meet regularly with two dozen patients to recite and discuss the works of great poets.
For two hours at a recent session, they immersed themselves in poetry, pondering the nature of insomnia (referenced in one poem) and debating the larger life questions raised by each piece.
Since it started last year, the Lifelines poetry group has become one of the clinic’s most popular wellness activities — offered along with exercise, cooking and gardening classes as a way to stay healthy.
How can poetry lead to better health?
“People feel that it relates to their lives in more than getting the diagnosis right,” explained Dr. Richard Rose, who helped start the group and is one of its most enthusiastic members. “It informs about existence in a special way that maybe no other vehicle does.”
That, in turn, has health benefits. And not just for the patient — perhaps for the health care system, as well.
A yearning to restore the human connection in medicine has sparked the rise of “narrative medicine,” an approach that focuses on listening closely to stories to understand the larger picture of a person’s health. Columbia University has a program in narrative medicine for medical students, designed to train them to develop good bedside manner through reading literature and listening to people telling their own stories.
Advocates of narrative medicine say it can transform the doctor-patient consultation by getting rid of the rapid-fire questions doctors usually ask, which lead to clinical answers, and replacing them with a conversation that includes open-ended questions to better understand and treat the illness.
“Part of it is reclamation,” said EmmaLee Pallai, who teaches a narrative health class for University of Minnesota students training to become doctors, pharmacists, nurses and social workers in the health field. “The history of medicine came out of philosophy — what does it mean to be human? Somewhere along the line it separated into a science.”
A leading voice in the movement to fuse poetry with medicine was Dr. John Stone, a heart specialist and published poet. As head of the cardiology department at Emory University, he required all cardiac fellows to study poetry, Rose said.
“He felt that poetry was part of what a doctor who is dealing with people who are suffering — it gives them insight into the human condition when taking care of the ill,” Rose said. Upon graduation from medical school in Scotland, he noted, students receive a book titled “Poems for Doctors.”
In Pallai’s class at the U, students use creative writing to explore issues of race and gender health disparities and stigma. Among their recent readings was a poem called “Sugar Blues,” about diabetes and the connection between sugar and the slave trade.
The focus of a recent class was a short story called “The Yellow Wallpaper,” written in the 1800s. Six students wrestled with the scene described by the narrator, a woman who was married to a doctor and who appeared fixated on the wallpaper as seen from her bed.
They pondered aloud what her “story” meant and what the source of her feeling unwell might be.
“It’s very applicable today,” said Augie Lindmark, a third-year medical student, “… all the different understandings of how a person can become sick.”
Pallai nudged them all to think deeper.
“What is the rhetoric now versus then around mental illness?” she asked.
A student and social worker in training nodded. “I’ve seen this with clients. They say, ‘I don’t even tell my doctor about the voices in my head.’ They feel judged, so they withdraw even more. I’ve heard this same narrative from clients.”
The discussion then veered to how to improve care by actively listening to patients. “I would say we’re not really trained for nuance,” Lindmark said. “We’re trained for specific answers.”
‘You just feel uplifted’
The idea to start a poetry group at the HealthPartners Como Clinic came from patients, said Jennette Turner, a health coach and program manager for the clinic’s health club.
About a year ago, the clinic hosted a workshop for patients on having hard conversations with loved ones on end-of-life issues. As part of that workshop, a poem by Stone, “Talking to the Family,” was introduced. The patients responded well to it, Turner said, and they asked for a poetry group.
If enjoyment is an indicator of good health, the folks walking out of a recent session were the picture of health. Some attributed their feeling of wellness to the social interaction they get from the poetry group. Others spoke of the mental challenge that reading and discussing a good poem provides.
For Tom O’Toole of Minneapolis, “Lifelines” offers a much needed break from the stresses he faces as a caregiver for his ailing wife. “It’s such a relief to come here and listen to ideas and fun and joy,” he said.
Manju Parikh and her husband, Subir Banerjee, are regulars, too.
“In a simple-minded way, it relieves stress,” Banerjee said. “It connects my body and soul together. I strive to get inside the poetry, and it stays with me.”
Added Parikh: “You just feel uplifted.”
The two have been going to the clinic for 35 years. When they first joined the poetry group, the readings spoke of death and old age. Poring over such deep subjects together in a supportive environment helps, they said.
“People our age, we reflect back on our life, and it puts it all together. The fact that a group of us can come together and find meaning in these words and images and sounds makes it special,” Parikh said.
Virginia Broich of Minneapolis is a newcomer to the group. After attending one session she was hooked. “I love it,” she said, after devouring poems by Seamus Heaney, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova.
“One patient said it makes all the sense in the world to have a doctor on one floor and a poetry group on the other,” Rose said. “The people who gather — some are old and sick, some are not old or sick. It can be a moment of joy that’s very transient.”