Poetry and Healthcare: The meeting of two worlds

by David Gilbert

December 23, 2014

Reading and writing poetry has brought me (and millions of others) solace and inspiration. It has offered perspectives (plural) on my experiences that have helped shift thoughts, feelings and sense of self. Poetry has aided my recovery from significant mental health problems and enabled me to cope with caring for others.

Up until now though, I have held my work in healthcare improvement and poetry at arms-length, partly because poetry has been my ‘sacred space’ away from the rigours of work. One poetry tutor told me: ‘If you start blogging, your poetry will suffer’, implying that one form of (professionally- and prose-led) creativity might stifle the other.

But I think the time has come to share my passion for poetry more widely. I want patients, service users and carers to reap the benefits of good poetry, just as many are beginning to do with story-telling. I believe poetry can help people better deal with their own health, and could be a powerful way to foster better relationships between healthcare staff and patients – it is another ‘improvement methodology’ in the broadest sense. But poetry is so much more. Please give it a chance.

It would be good to know whether the poems below resonate. This blog marks the beginning of another journey though - to find out what could happen when two worlds meet.

(Please note that if you are reading this on a smart phone, the line breaks may not read properly)



The Walk

The day my dad said no to chemo
I went for a walk around the blocks
Criss-crossing avenues and old haunts
Past the locked-up park head down
Dot-to-dot between pubs and bus stops
Until dusk fell. A friend rang to ask
How I felt. I said I didn’t know.
When we hung up I was stopped
At a driveway’s edge staring down
At two pairs of child-size handprints
Side-by-side: waving in cement.

(Note about the above poem: Prose writing often know where it is going and tends towards comfort, or at least conclusion. Good poetry resists simplistic resolution and the moral high ground. Each turn of the line should reveal hidden truths, but the ending should not be ‘the’ ending. Robert Frost said: ‘No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader’. I was struggling to find an ending to this poem, went for a walk and found it, in a totally unexpected place).



The Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus

These days, the Preferred Place of Care
(or PPC) according to academics
is The Home or The Hospice.

Dad prefers to ignore
the finality of words
and officiates from Bed 6 on Ward 11E

summoning us
with parting gifts
as we gather

in comfy chairs provided
by the Project Coordinator for the Patient Pathway (or Matron)
and Betty, the cleaner.

He doesn’t want to go home.
He refuses the sweetened pleas of bed managers
to go home. This is home.

Contained by the, at last, certainty
of the rhythmic swish of the morphine pump
and ward rounds.

He swears the profile of a golden lioness
rises glowering from the trees
overlooking The Heath

and the paths where we handfed
Nuthatches, Chaffinches and Robins.
Fewer of them now.

He is more tired today.
I feed him slow spoonfuls
of leek and potato soup

tell him that Samuel
went to the zoo yesterday
held out his hand to touch

the Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus
almost wiped out by civil war.
That Adam wants to bring it home.

(In the above poem, I wanted to write about the complex relationships revealing themselves at my dying father’s bedside. But I was also angry about how guidelines were so inflexibly enforced, even for the best of reasons. But as I let myself write more simple and personal lines – particularly about ‘feeding’, I forgot myself in childhood memories and woke up to find another animal had inserted itself. A wonderful poet, Mimi Khalvati equates poetry to sculpture – both are about revealing what was always there. Even if it’s a hippo!)


Unsaid (A mother’s sonnet)

Think of him as a child, the time wasted
As he flipped between chocolate and vanilla,
Sauce and flake or neither. Now it’s tube, blade
Paracetamol or ligature

He’d haemorrhage beyond recovery
With luck, while waiting for an ambulance
Though more probably, he’d scrape to A&E
And spit gratitude at the consultant.

You care too much to watch him gather dust
In psychiatric corridors. The damage
Done at the precipice must be addressed:
Lead him gently to, but leave him at, the bridge

Above the Archway Road, or let him down
Peacefully on the Northern Line Southbound.

(Wordsworth said ‘poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility’. This sonnet was a long time in the making. Only after my recovery could I reflect on what my mother and others must have been thinking. She never talked about her anger towards me, and I am sure she would have felt guilty for expressing it. I wanted also to write about suicide in a straightforward way and tackle some taboos. Some friends don’t like this poem, but ironically, I think it is a gesture of forgiveness towards my mother).


Ward 9

It gets so quiet so quiet I read a lot
turn the pages slowly without rustling
soften crisps between tongue and cheek
whisper in the long white rooms
rummage through carrier bags without a scrunch
hum sonatas diminuendo

they say my heart’s percussion requires
toning down my neurones
blaze with some disremembered fire
but they can’t know the future can
always catch the past they’ll
find out too soon too soon

I hear everything they talk about
in the boiler room the radiators
their feverish swish and rush through
long pipes the valves each morning
that deadly clickety-clack. You hear
the cacophony of leaves outside? The evening
is too loud too loud the rising moon deafening

I would have been happy enough to remain
manager in a shop of silence or curator
archivist librarian gymnast mime or anything
without words – a collector of soothings
perpetual watcher of moons and satellites
but I was so young so young

when I learned to pretend to shout
tasted the shape of bugger in my mouth
kept it in began to crave the quiet
till it grew so strong it pinned me down
everything was soon too loud too loud
they keep me here for my own good
you need to go now there’s not much time
before the trolley comes round comes round

(Poetry is inherently transgressive. When you are in poetry-mind, you are moving between each side of your brain. And it can get surreal. Emily Dickinson wrote: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies’. This poem is about me, and is not. It is the better for it, I think).


This way then that

Thursday afternoon at four he stopped
layering slabs of brown on grey on black
got up to get the scissors and masking tape
unrolled a sheet of frosted tracing paper
hung it over his face like a veil
looked out to where there once had been
a vision of roads and homes, shops and parks
where far off normal people – smudges, lines
and dots – moved this way then that. “So tell us
what you can see” said the art therapist:
“Animals? Shadows? Waves? Or weaving bones?
Come on, let your imagination go”. He thought:
Shut the fuck up. Smudges. Lines. Dots…

(And sometimes, humour can play its part and lend you the distance from pain that you so sorely need and that can help you regain perspective. I never showed the poem above to the art therapist though. People ask me whether the above ‘actually happened’. I am not sure whether that matters).


In 2015, I want to bring poetry more into my work. I am developing a series of poetry workshops in healthcare that will explore, through reading and writing, perspectives on living with ill-health, patients’ experiences of healthcare, and how patients and professionals can work together in partnership. For me, poetry is about going in, through and out of the shadows – but also working ‘with’ the darkness – it is alchemy.

Finally: Not all my poetry is dark! The Eel is perhaps my most optimistic poem. But I wrote it while shrouded in uncertainty. It was only after writing it that I realised it was about my own recovery – the way my behaviours had evolved out of the darkness and how I was groping for the light before my feelings of well-being caught up with me:

The Eel

Beneath the ice
an eel slipped through the murk
mouth bigger than the world.

The man watched and shivered
in the face of what he’d become.
His mind could not respond.

His body had to be coerced
by something other
or be abandoned.

His legs, heavy and traitorous, began
to bisect dreamless streets.
He still looked down

caressing the blade
whispering in his pocket.
His eyes were eventually drawn

by scaffolding and cigarette packets.
By pipework: the earth opening up.
Railway sidings at dawn:

The tenacity of dandelions!
He failed at first to recognise
this emerging appetite.

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6 comments on “Poetry and Healthcare: The meeting of two worlds”

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comments. It's funny. Eel is a poem that many seem to like, but is the only one in the blog that has not been published. I have never tried. Perhaps I should!

  1. A lot to take in here both in literal and emotional responses.

    I really identify with the poems about your Dad's illness and your own. I started writing poetry after the traumatic death of my mother. I also used poems to communicate with psychologists and psychiatrists when I was overwhelmed and suffering from PTSD, severe clinical depression and grief all at the same time. I found it easier to be more honest through my poetry, especially my 'death & despair' collection than verbalise what was really going on in my mind.

    Thanks for sharing these which I will read again and no doubt gain new perspectives.

  2. Wow absolutely loved it and would be very interested in any help to develop mu own skills. Love how liberating poetry is. You have made my day started bad read this and the fight is back
    Thank you so very much for being the match

  3. The paths where we handfed
    Nuthatches, Chaffinches and Robins.
    Fewer of them now

    Brought tears to my eyes. I love the themes of feeding and loss and the presence of different generations in this poem. Nice.

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