Speak Art: Poetry Happens

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What poetry does: inspires, transforms, moves, agitates, articulates, imagines, disturbs, delights, and mystifies.

What poetry does (according to Emily Dickinson): “If I read a book (and) it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Poetry happens. All around us. Every day. Even if we aren’t fully aware of the fact, the muses are whispering subliminal sweet everythings in our ears.

Poetry needlessly intimidates; poetry is relegated to the shelf labeled ‘inaccessible.’ At least that is the case for most adults; children seem to be born poets and we educate them out of it. Goodnight Moon, along with most other popular children’s books, are really illustrated poems.

Along with Cicero so long ago, pragmatic people proclaim that poetry and art are dead. Not true.

I love poetry and have been a mostly closeted writer of poetry. My first (and so far, my only) published poem at age nine (in my elementary school newspaper) was a haiku: “A hurt cricket limps/helplessly and hopelessly/into the forest.” At the time, I wanted to be an entomologist, or a veterinarian, or a writer. I most definitely did not want to be a nurse, but when I re-read this haiku, I see the empathy and compassion that later led me to nursing. Several years ago when my mother was dying of cancer and in home hospice, I found that I could only read poetry. Poetry has a magical quality.

I use poetry in my teaching. For nursing students, I’ve found that it helps to use a healthy dose of poems written by nurses. They resonate more closely for the students, and also make poetry less frightening to students who equate poetry with totally inaccessible, frustrating writing. For instance, I often use the powerful poem by Cortney Davis, “I Want to Work in a Hospital” “where it’s okay/to climb in bed with patients/and hold them—” to spark a discussion on empathy and the murky realms of professional boundaries and burnout. I love the moment in class when I read that opening line, hear a dampening of background noise, and look out over the sea of faces suddenly fully attentive. Poetry is magic.

I use poetry writing in my teaching, but I often sneak this in by not announcing it as poetry writing. For many years, in my health policy undergraduate course, I had students write an American Sentence of their take-home message for that class session. (See my previous blog post “Nurses and Writing the American–Healthcare–Sentence.”) An American Sentence is an ‘Americanized’ version of haiku and is a sentence consisting of 17 syllables. With a class of 150 students, this assignment did double or triple duty: it reinforced their in-class learning of concepts; it forced them to focus and hone their writing skills, and it helped me to read all of their writing before the next class session. Here are a few of my favorite student American Sentences about health policy: “US healthcare: purposeful opacity in service to the rich.” and “Sticks and stones will break our bones, but prevention is the way to stop it #nopoetryskills.” OK, so obviously the student who wrote that last one had figured out the poetry part. Good use of humor and Twitter.

In the final class session of the narrative medicine course I taught this summer, I had the students write either a haiku or an American Sentence to sum up their overall take-home message from the course. Here are some they came up with in 10 minutes of writing time: “Words, poems, artwork/Express the unspoken pain/We need to release.” “Prompted to write, to my surprise, the narrative created healing.” “So close yet so far/More questions raised than answered/ Curiosity.” “Healing is an art/in this class/that is what I get.” (This last one is technically a Lune/American Haiku, but I like it.)

I continue to search for ways to sneak more poetry into not only my teaching, but also into my writing life and into my life. The photograph here is from the Te Papa Museum, New Zealand’s amazingly wonderful national museum in Wellington. They had a ‘make a poem’ board with those little magnetized words in both Maroi and English that adults and children could play with and change around into ephemeral poetry: word art (or toi kupu, which I think literally translates to ‘speak art’–lovely!). When I was there this past February I stopped and wrote a poem mixing English and Maori words, using the Maori words by instinct since I don’t know more than a few words of Maori. Here’s what I came up with (translated into English, and I suppose this counts as my second published poem. Move over hurt cricket!) Poetry happens; let it happen to you.

River understood

travel as divide.

The land

they silence—cold

forged heat.

Pleiades mourns.

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