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When the Doctor Prescribes Poetry

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Amanda Gorman’s inspired and inspiring poem that stole the show at President Biden’s inauguration in January has shown millions of Americans the emotional and social power of poetry and, I hope, prompted them to use it themselves.

On her blog, Diana Raab, a psychologist, poet and author in Santa Barbara, wrote that “poetry can help us feel as if we’re part of a larger picture and not just living in our isolated little world. Writing and reading poetry can be a springboard for growth, healing and transformation. Poets help us see a slice of the world in a way we might not have in the past.”

Dr. Rafael Campo, a poet and physician at Harvard Medical School, believes poetry can also help doctors become better providers, fostering empathy with their patients and bearing witness to our common humanity, which he considers essential to healing. As he put it in a TEDxCambridge talk in June 2019, “When we hear rhythmic language and recite poetry, our bodies translate crude sensory data into nuanced knowing — feeling becomes meaning.”

According to Dr. Robert S. Carroll, a psychiatrist affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center, poetry can give people a way to talk about subjects that are taboo, like death and dying, and provide healing, growth and transformation.

Referring to the pandemic, Dr. Rosenthal said, “This crisis affects more or less everyone, and poetry can help us process difficult feelings like loss, sadness, anger, lack of hope. Although not everyone has a gift for writing poetry, all of us can benefit from the thoughts so many poets have beautifully expressed.”

Indeed, the book’s first section features the poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, about loss that can comfort those who are suffering. She wrote:

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

“When people are devastated by loss they should be allowed to feel and express their pain,” Dr. Rosenthal said in an interview. “They should be offered support and compassion, not urged to move on. You can’t force closure. If people want closure, they’ll do it in their own time.”

Closure was not a state cherished by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote that

“Time does not bring relief; you all have lied

Who told me time would ease me of my pain!”

However, Dr. Rosenthal pointed out that for most people, time does bring relief, despite what his friend Kay Redfield Jamison wrote in her memoir “An Unquiet Mind.” For her, relief “took its own, and not terribly sweet, time in doing so.”

Poems, I now realize, thanks to Dr. Rosenthal, can be a literary panacea for the pandemic. They let us know that we are not alone, that others before us have survived devastating loss and desolation and that we can be uplifted by the imagery and cadence of the written and spoken word.


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