The Healing Power of Poetry
Can poetry heal? Can we roast these poetic words and turn them into hot tea so that we can feel better with every sip? Can our favorite poems contain medicinal properties to fight diseases? Can writing poems solve world problems or prevent wars and natural calamities? These are just some of the questions that few people dare to ask.
The fact that the answers to these questions may seem fairly obvious to most people, as it requires a huge task of producing or presenting large number of convincing facts to make such a claim that poetry can be used as a credible healing tool and especially in the sense of physically treating an illness; it seems that no one could be interested in entertaining these thoughts, except perhaps for a select few minds who can go so far as to prove their points.
We can start by mentioning the worst that happened when the year 2020 was just beginning to unfold, and then we can also talk about how poetry can help polish all of this. Don’t get us wrong, though. Just because we suggest that poetry can do something to make things better does not mean that it is automatically becoming a cure for everything. In reality, the world will never be free of its problems. But poetry can do something to make everything more bearable, even to the point of surprising us as it sometimes did.
The start of the New Year 2020 has been a really bad one, as it was struck by a number of disturbing things or events happening around the world. On January 3, 2020, the world was shocked by the news that a US drone attacked and killed a senior Iranian military general in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Many have thought that it could lead to World War III.
A Ukrainian airline was also shot down inside Iranian airspace on January 8, killing all 176 passengers and crews on board. It was not until three days later that the Iranian army, which has likely felt pressure and condemnation from the international community, declared itself responsible for the shooting down of the unsuspecting airliner and said it was just a mistake, an accident.
In politics, Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief of a superpower country, the United States of America, was charged with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress by the Democrats-dominated House of Representatives, but only to be acquitted in the Senate later. Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, and his team were able to carry out their successful defense in what many political analysts called the “great escape”.
In Russia, the abrupt resignation of Russian President Putin’s long-term ally and former Prime Minister Medvedev has taken many by surprise, and especially because, unexpectedly, it happened just after Putin delivered his state of the nation address on January 15. The next day, the State Duma swore in a new prime minister in the person of Mikhael Mishustin, head of the Federal Tax Service. Putin has also proposed a constitutional change that garnered initial backing from Russia’s lower house of parliament. Many saw it as an attempt to extend his influence even after he resigned from office.
In Kenya, there was a locust invasion that many Kenyans considered the worst desert locust outbreak in 70 years. Hundreds of millions of locusts were said to have come from Ethiopia and Somalia before breaking into the East African country like a storm.
And then there’s this Australian wildfire that peaked in the same month. It wasn’t an ordinary wild fire as it burned roughly 18 million hectares, destroyed an estimated 6,000 buildings, and killing no less than 34 people. It was so severe and enormous that the smoke was able to move about 11,000 kilometers while crossing the South Pacific Ocean towards Chile and Argentina.
As if all of these scenarios weren’t enough, and yet, in the same month of January, the Taal volcano in the Philippines erupted, resulting in hundreds of thousands of displaced Filipino families, destroyed habitats, and lost lives. In Turkey, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck a province 550 kilometers east of Ankara, which claimed 41 lives and injured thousands.
But the outbreak of the corona virus, which originated in Wuhan, China before spreading to different parts of the world, is perhaps what people are most concerned about right now. At the time of writing this blog post, there is still no vaccine against the virus, and new cases of people testing positive for the virus accumulate every day, along with a number of those who did not recover and perished. The World Health Organization has finally declared that the corona virus, or also known as COVID-19, is a pandemic.
So how can poetry help? Can we really cure a serious illness literally like we can with prescription drugs? Can we suddenly, out of nowhere, turn this world into a much better place every time we recite a rhyming verse like we’re wizards in a Harry Potter movie casting a magic spell on one of our subjects?
The point is, we knew little, or perhaps most of us, were hardly convinced that poetry is one of the oldest medicines. From the earliest doctors in Egypt and Mesopotamia, to the bustling array of healthcare professionals in the modern hospital, poetry has its place and is an important part of healing; it is something that our doctors and other health professionals can learn a lot from and take advantage of.
These master healers of ancient times, and throughout the Middle Ages, were fond of using chants and charms as a way to cure supernaturally caused diseases along with herbal remedies, and also as a way to help prepare the mind for the potions recipe: thus it is how poetry became so intertwined with medicine. And while our modern physicians, with the advancement of technology, can address a patient’s mental and physical needs in a scientific way or approach, much remains to be seen or done for them, especially in how they can better understand their patients’ emotions, convictions, and attitudes towards a particular disease.
With the application or introduction of poetry along with modern ways of treating illness, we can help the patient improve their analytical skills, as well as increase attention, observation, and listening power. Rafael Campo, a physician and poet at Harvard Medical School, explains why we should not think that writing poems alone can solve all the problems we face in medicine. But poetry, according to him, is comparable in certain respects to the way we treat our patients with dignity, respect, and integrity:
A good poem engulfs us, takes hold of us physically. Its concision and urgency demand the participation of another in order to achieve completeness, to attain full meaning. In these ways, it’s not so different from providing the best, most compassionate care to our patients.
Certainly, poetry will never take the place of what our modern doctors can do with all those medical interventions and with the help of state-of-the-art technology, and yet it doesn’t have to be an irrelevant distraction either. Poetry exists to remind our doctors how they can best deal with life and death every day, through the eyes of those who suffer and die, and those who desperately need a loving hand to heal them. It is certainly more than just flowery words, so to speak, since behind every medical history, there is a human being capable of fostering hopes, dreams, and fears.
And who knows, there could be more to poetry than poetry itself, because it could probably just be the tip of the iceberg. William Carlos Williams, who is a poet and at the same time a doctor for over forty years, had given us a clue that there’s much we can find in poems, from which we can all exploit, and for all time to come:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Poetry can change the world. It has changed the world. It will continue to change the world and make it a much better place in which to live. But it’s not only about what these poets are capable of creating the change they want to see in the world, though, they also taught us, for the most part, to be critical of the way we perceive things or how we interpret the reality of each passing day.