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A prescription for ... poetry? This doctor recommends it

Are there health benefits to reading or writing poetry? These doctors think so.

Just like there are often no words to describe crazy experiences, when it comes to health, there are also times when there are no treatments or answers. Luckily, there is always poetry — and while that may not sound like much, it’s become a saving grace for many patients and doctors.

From a psychiatrist who often uses poetry in his practice, to an internist who has been battling COVID-19 in hospitals — there are doctors in many fields who have found solace for themselves as well as their patients through poetry.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, just released a book, aptly titled “Poetry Rx.” He explained how the book is reflective of his years spent integrating the art into his own medical practice — an idea that occurred to him when a patient read a poem during one of their phone calls.

“I have always responded to poetry and remember when I immigrated to the U.S. from South Africa finding one poem in particular to be very helpful in dealing with leaving my family behind,” said Rosenthal. “Then I encountered a patient who, during a phone call with me, illustrated how reading a poem could ease the pain of a major loss in his life. That made me very curious as to whether other poems might have a similar effect — and I found many others that did.”

Rosenthal decided to bring all of these poems together in one place in his book. He even breaks the chapters down into categories based on issues or feelings that people may be facing.

“Poetry can act as an extra tool in our tool box for helping people in many different ways. For example, it can comfort people in distress,” said Rosenthal. “The first section of the book (Loving and Losing) helps people who have just undergone the loss of a loved one, whether by bereavement or a breakup. Poetry can provide specific guidance.”

It does this by providing people with a look inside the minds of others who have faced similar issues in the past, he explained.

Dr. Rafael Campo, who teaches and practices as an internest at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, organizes writing and poetry study groups for patients facing tough diagnoses at the hospital.

“Language can really help us bridge some of the distancing that can occur in treating patients in the hospital,” said Campo. “Poetry, I think, really helps us transcend some of those constraints and sort of reconnect with our patients and also ourselves and what called us to become healers in the first place.”

Campo explained how medicine can be grim — especially during pandemic times — and over the years he’s had to treat many patients with a terminal diagnosis. As a professor in the medical school, Campo is also tasked with helping students make their way through their studies without becoming jaded from what can seem like a constant immersion in tragic or intense outcomes of their patients. To fight off this negative mindset in his own career, Campo took a year off between his third and fourth years of medical school to focus on literature. This helped him come back to medicine with a renewed sense of purpose, and he hopes that it will have the same impact on the medical students that he works with now.

I encountered a patient who, during a phone call with me, illustrated how reading a poem could ease the pain of a major loss in his life.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal

“It can really help students early in their careers preserve that kind of calling, that sense of healing that they come to medicine with in the first place,” said Campo. “Oftentimes, we don’t have medical treatments to help (patients), and hearing their stories — being present for them through language and poetry in some cases — really helped me to feel like I could still do something to heal in a larger sense, even if you couldn’t cure some of these illnesses.”

Campo works with students or patients to read and write poetry, and he feels that it opens the door to empathy — a sentiment that is shared by Rosenthal. While Rosenthal wants to point out that he doesn’t prescribe poems as a one-off treatment plan for patients, he does have a few poems that he recommends for those going through tough times.

Below, there are some poems recommended by Rosenthal. In his book, he uses 50 different poems because, as he says, “I felt that any fewer would not give a sense of how many things poems can do for us.”

For sustaining hope:

Emily Dickinson's ‘“Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers"

For promoting reconciliation:

Rumi's “Out Beyond Ideas”

For guidance:

Rudyard Kipling's “If—"

C. P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka"

For pursuing dreams:

Langston Hughes' "Dreams"