SATURDAY READING: Poetry, Community And The Flourishing Heart by John Fox

Poetry, Community And The Flourishing Heart by John Fox

From The Healing Art of Writing

Poetic Medicine As a Catalyst For Resilience
and Connection Within a Hospital Setting

By making us stop for a moment, poetry gives us an opportunity to think about ourselves as human beings on this planet and what we mean to each other. (Rita Dove, US Poet Laureate 1993)

People don’t listen to understand.  They listen to reply.  The collective monologue is everyone talking and no one listening. (Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)

We often associate the statement “Know thyself” with Socrates (via Plato), forgetting that “Know thyself” was the major inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and that Apollo was the original god of both medicine and poetry – in Apollo the two disciplines seamlessly meld. (Jack Coulehan, MD, State University of New York, Stonybrook, Director Emeritus Center for Humanities and Bioethics)

Earlier this year I was in Newark, New Jersey, at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, presenting Grand Rounds at the invitation of Dr. Diane Kaufman, head of child psychiatry.

In addition to speaking at Grand Rounds I met with a group of patients in the hospital.  Participating was a range of generations, people from their 20s to 70s.

Many of these participants were quite ill.  Yet, they showed up to meet this poet and poetry therapist.

Our group also included family members, patients, and nurses.  The room we met in at the hospital is called the PALM room – that stands for Planned Activities Less Medication!

I began by reading a poem based on the Psalms of David from the Holy Bible.  This psalm poem was written by Roberta deKay, a woman living with and fighting a very aggressive cancer. 

Psalm 13 

O Lord, I am sinking in despair
fearing you have forgotten me.

How long will my mind be confused
and my heart in grief?

Turn towards me, mothering Healer, bring
light to move from despair before my
heart closes.

Gently comes your healing hand
across my mind bringing what was needed
before I knew myself.

Trust in your mercy opens my heart
and I realize again your grace.
I am richly renewed.

Your mercy is deeper than my despair.

In the spirit of the psalmist, Roberta was crying out to God for solace, with faith.

I felt a psalm-like poem would connect with my listeners, who were almost entirely African American and Hispanic, and that this theme of asking for help when one is close to despair would feel real to the situation of these patients, many of whom were quite ill.

My instincts were correct.

I asked people to speak back a line in Roberta’s poem that touched them.  While it was slow, there were responses as people spoke back lines:

How long will my mind be confused
and my heart in grief? 

Turn towards me, mothering Healer,
bring light

The nurses attending this session were also drawn in, with a sense that this poem reminded them of their own “mothering healing” instinct and spirit.  We didn’t rush.  We took our time.

I believe there is something in poetry that is often akin to prayer, like a psalm, just as there are aspects of medicine related to and that must attend to our spiritual selves.

Dr. Rafael Campo, a fine physician poet from Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital at Harvard, recognizes that spiritual and shamanic component of poetry:

Putting the mouth to words, and by incantation returning regular rhythms to the working lungs, there were the principles by which ancient healers in Native American cultures practiced their art.  (The Poetry of Healing: A Doctor’s Education in Empathy, Identity and Desire)

Campo says there is something healing about consciously giving a word our breath.  This is something indigenous people have known about healing for millennia.

People mirrored back lines or words that spoke to them.  We listened to one another, not in a style of chit-chat or chart taking questions or through technically oriented language, but with a sense of deepening care and attention.

Trust in your mercy opens my heart

Your mercy is deeper than my despair

Silences wove into our listening.  Not the silences of boredom, the tedium of being in or visiting a hospital.  It was the silence of precious attention.  I had won some of their trust.

Together we made a more healing environment.  We could explore through a poem the first seeds of connection and invite through our own thought and feeling green sprouts that could infuse us with a felt sense of resilience.

Then I read a poem about listening deeply, about being deeply listened to.  Here is that poem which is something that came to me – I hesitate to say that I wrote this poem – rather it arrived early in my training as a poetry therapist, about 1985.

I was working as an intern at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California:

When Someone Deeply Listens to You 

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved. 

When someone deeply listens to you,
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered! 

When someone deeply listens to you,
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

The questions I asked were these – what is it like for you as a patient, as a person, to be listened to?  What did this poem evoke in you?  If you could speak a word or two that reflect what you feel about being listened to, what would your word or those words be?

An older man, seated to my left in the circle, with a neatly trimmed grey beard, a black man, who had up to this point looked abstracted, sad, and distant, spoke up quietly.

I say this gentleman spoke up quietly and that sounds like an oxymoron, but indeed his quiet and simple words lifted something up powerfully before all of us.  His word carried a deep intention and sense of meaning even though he wasn’t proclaiming it loudly – he said one word to the circle of people: “enlightenment.”

And then he said, “. . . and that enlightenment could be conveyed by a person, place, or thing and in a variety of ways.”

It sounded as if the gentleman’s vocal chords and his lung capacity were badly compromised by illness but there was still an unmistakable clarity and directness in his voice that caused us all to lean toward and become more aware of his presence.

His words and voice were like wildflowers coming through the crack in the hospital concrete.  It was one of those “whoa!” moments where everyone stops.

This was clearly the start of his poem and a surprise to me and perhaps to others to discover how much attention he had been giving to what was occurring.  This poem, our caring circle, had stirred something true and beautiful in him.

And then a visitor of a young man whose utterly bald head indicated he was clearly in this throes of intense chemotherapy treatment, a young Hispanic woman probably in her mid-twenties, perhaps his sister or girlfriend, who had been sitting very politely and quietly, suddenly said in a strong voice, “not being listened to could cause me to feel invisible, as if I don’t exist,” but the listening poem evoked for her a sense of “belonging.”

This was an absolutely bell-ringing statement and she said it in a confident and composed way.

Another young man, a patient, Eric, tucked into a corner of our room and our circle, said that the words the poem evoked for him were “a sense of caring, a sense of ease.”

Eric too had been quiet and looked shy.  Even with that shyness, I asked him, part because his voice was so resonant with a deep mellow timbre (a quality I felt might go unrecognized in this hospital) if he would read the listening poem to all of us.

He blushed but he took a deep breath and read.  It was clear people enjoyed his version of saying that poem and I believe he took that appreciation in.  Further connection!

It’s important to say here how much the nurses joined in and shared from their hearts.  They leaned forward with their elbows on their knees.  They leaned close to hear their patients.  They were at ease themselves, to use Eric’s word, to share from their own hearts.

This is the blessing of nurses and nursing, that is, attending to the matter and person at hand, even to themselves.

And so this poetry circle in the PALM room – the room of poems rather than Prozac if I may say so – soon concluded.  At that point, with poetic license, I felt a different name for the PALM room: Precious Attention, Less Medication.

I wondered, as I walked down the hospital hallway to my next group, whether my visit had felt to these patients like someone landing from another planet!

And yet about two hours later I received via one of the nurses in that circle, a poem Eric wrote immediately after my visit.  Here is Eric’s poem:

Tell Me Why?

Tell me why people don’t talk
Tell me why people don’t feel
Tell me why we close off the
gift that God has given us to feel
talk, love and hear. For this is
one force that makes the world
go round. This brings peace to
the heart. If we can just
tell one person why you feel
the way you do!

(Eric Fishburne)

Eric ways it so well: why poetry therapy can encourage connection and resilience.

His poem recognizes how a whole world, which is, after all, rooted in a whole person, how a person’s whole world can be changed by “one person” who hears you, hears why you feel that way you do.


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