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Art in Strange Places

What is poetry doing in hospitals?

Elise Brault-Dreux

Abstracts

This article addresses the issue of the presence of poetry in hospitals. It first highlights the unexpected points of convergence between these two normative systems. Then it attempts to show how the NHS has repeatedly made use of poetry and underlines the increasing presence, in hospitals, of the potential therapeutic value of poetry. The article then reverses its angle of analysis as it examines the presence of hospital in a selection of poems. The confrontation of “poetry in hospital” and “hospital in poetry” leads us to address the status of the poetic sign in hospital and the status of hospital as a poetic sign—a reciprocal mise en abyme which, in the end, does not appear as particularly strange.

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Index terms

Mots-clés :

hôpital, NHS, patient, poésie, signe

Keywords:

hospital, NHS, patient, poetry, sign
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1What is poetry doing in hospital? This question raises several issues at once: what is the function of poetry in the medical institution? How do poets find inspiration (if they do) in hospitals? How is poetry used by hospitals? And why should poetry end up being “all over the walls” (Broom, “Ward 64”) in some hospitals? Not all these questions will find an answer in this article, but some of them will be addressed in order to clarify the role of this ancient art in contemporary British healing facilities. Our argument will start by shedding light on the unexpected points of convergence between two normative systems: the poetic frame and hospital organisation.

2Medicine and the arts, for centuries, shared the common language of the humanities. The arts played a significant role in the healing processes of ancient Greece as they were apprehended as nourishing material for both mind and body. This role remained quite active throughout the centuries and in the Renaissance period, for instance, the physician was also a philosopher and a musician or a painter. Anatomy was artistic. By the mid-19th century, however, the art of healing started to become increasingly based on scientific and technical achievements, hence leaving behind the humanities, the arts and, to a relative extent, the human subject. Gradually, hospitals were strongly “hygienized” into places where clean treatment became the main priority, where the corridors needed to be practical, where the whole building was organised in order to maximise clinical productivity. Yet, precisely when healing places were becoming sanitized, Florence Nightingale in her famous Notes on Nursing (1860) insisted on the significance of the perception and experience of “beautiful objects” for the patient’s well-being. She writes:

People say the effect is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body, too. Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by colour, and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect.
Variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients are actual means of recovery.
But it must be slow variety, e.g., if you shew a patient ten or twelve engravings successively, ten-to-one that he does not become cold and faint, or feverish, or even sick; but hang one up opposite him, one on each successive day, or week, or month, and he will revel in the variety. (Nightingale 45-6)

3The British nurse, whose notes are not addressed to hospital staff members but to family members who were nursing their sick relatives at home, thus insisted on the curative power of the arts or any beautiful shapes and colours.

4Within the highly regulated context of hospital where hardly any time and space were then devoted to the arts, some members of the medical staff, some patients and artists have, in the last few decades, made a collective effort to reintroduce the arts into clinical practice. Hospitals have then opened their doors to various forms of art, performances and exhibitions. Painting, music, drama and poetry have stepped into the hospital building—a place whose mission is chiefly to “improve the health and the wellbeing” (The NHS Constitution for England) of patients who are, and must remain, the main focus of the institution—and the most manifest impact has been an expansion of the status of these patients. The latter are no longer reduced to their being subjects (or even objects) of medical care and cure, they are now also spectators, listeners, readers, artists and sometimes critics. Their subjectivity is, if only for a few minutes, addressed differently, beyond their pathologies and vulnerabilities. So, if the arts will never pretend to replace the medical arts, they in fact balance them since they make possible a positive existential experience that will keep the patient’s subjectivity alive. This growing awareness of the rewarding role of the arts in hospital has given way to various publications and to an effort to theorize and list its benefits. Peter Senior, for instance, in 1998 wrote:

[The arts] assist recovery, encourage feelings of well-being and alleviate stress. They can improve the quality of healthcare environments by linking art, architecture and interior design. They enrich the lives of patients, visitors and staff through their own involvement. They can develop closer links between the health services and the community. (Senior 99)

5This quite general overview has, in the last decade, been evidenced and embraced. In Julie Zook’s and Kerstin Sailer’s The Covert Life of Hospital Architecture (2022), mention is made of the recent research about the positive effects of arts on the patient’s capacity to endure pain and suffering.

  • 1 Among which Zook lists Miller, Hickman and Lemasters; Ulrich; Hathorn and Nanda.

These studies1 address situations where the value of art, or art-life artefacts, lies in its ability to distract during experiences of pain (usually physical). In terms of corridors specifically, art is often argued to create a more pleasant ambience. (Zook and Sailer 115)

6Poetry is one among other arts that have been flourishing in hospital. But before trying to understand what poetry does in and for the hospital, it seems essential, first, to assess what brings them together and the extent to which their respective peculiarities find points of convergence that turn the irruption of poetry into the hospital (and conversely) into an event which is not that strange.

7The hospital is now a common institution, and its modern version, which was extensively commented upon by Michel Foucault in the 1970s, is characterized by its primarily dealing with life: it is no longer “a house of mercy” where, in the first stages of the history of hospital, the poor found refuge; nor a “house of segregation” (Risse 675) whose aim was to isolate individuals seen as social threats; nor a place where sick people were confined while they waited to die. As Foucault famously demonstrated, the mission of hospitals relies on a regulated, complex discipline: first and foremost, the discipline of space which in part consists of the organisation of sick bodies in an architecture divided into units, wards, rooms, corridors, in order to avoid the propagation of germs and viruses. This hygienic discipline is combined with the highly regulated discipline of time and of circulation of people, of air and of information. All these rules converge towards one fundamental mission: the performant discipline of medical procedures. Among the structuring instances of hospital, there is the system of signs specific to the place. Signs and words are everywhere visible: on doors, in corridors, at the foot of beds, in countless files. And the circulation of these signs complies with the discipline of the place: diagnosis and prognosis must be spoken carefully, have to be clearly set out, appropriately announced, and must submit to medical secrecy. In hospital, signs and words are regulated.

  • 2 “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” (Eliot 40).

8In poetry, too, the use of words is highly controlled. Poetry is “art made of language” (O’Brien 20). And though Sean O’Brien in The Deregulated Muse insists on the deregulation of poetry since the last decades of the 20th century, pointing out the increasing variety of poetic forms and intentions, the poetic genre nonetheless has kept relying on a relative economy of words scrupulously selected and organized. This is precisely how Roman Jakobson famously defined the poetic function, as the “project[ion] [of] the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination” (Jakobson 358)—a structure based on a dual linkage. In poems, moreover, peculiar attention is given to the sound and the place of words on the page. Stanzas, lines, breaks, blanks, compact clusters of words, or prose poems: all these techniques build architectures of various forms that organize the circulation of sounds, of silence and of breath. If the comparison with a hospital building is admittedly far-fetched, yet the tension between discipline and structure (of poetry and of hospital staff and patients) and deregulation (again of poetic form, and because of the irruption of instability into any hospital situation) somehow encourage us to read both systems together. For poetry arranges the chaos, sets the “land in order”2 fixes the world within its forms and cadence, not unlike hospital whose mission is to fix ills and ailments and to re-empower its residents. This sense of regulation, or at least of arrangement, goes along with a much more expressive, sometimes intimate, dimension. Moreover, because of its artistic nature, because of the shortness of its form, the effulgence of its message, as well as the complexity of its signs, at once seen, heard, grasped and / or missed, poetry provokes artistic emotions. Poems have an effect on their reader—an effect which is extremely varied in nature and intensity. This shares something with what being in hospital does to patients: in this unique context the patient’s subjectivity is intensified and his or her existential emotions are dizzyingly aroused.

9Both poetry and hospital hence stand on that edge where discipline and emotions, by nature conflicting, converge; where the poetic and the medical institutions deal with the intimate; where the public and the private both precariously and firmly cohabit. Paul Ricoeur (1996, 29) declared that suffering is private, while health is public, meaning that while the experience of disease is wholly subjective, health is an objective, public issue that must be organised economically, politically and socially. Ben Lerner, in The Hatred of Poetry, remarks:

Whatever we think of particular poems, “poetry” is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external: my capacity to express myself poetically and to comprehend such expressions is a fundamental qualification for social recognition. (Lerner 12)

10Our unexpected comparison between poetry and hospital through their respective discipline, their private and public aspects and the emotional arousal each triggers, helps us make sense of their convergence and understand the increasing presence of poetry in hospital lately.

11With these echoes in mind, I will here be looking at various points of contact between poetry and hospital starting with the NHS’s reliance on the poetic form to pay tribute to its medical staff and organisation. From there the article will seek to assess how poetry finds its place in hospitals. The angle of analysis will then be reversed as I propose to look at how hospitals are present in poems. The successive study of “poetry in hospital” and “hospital in poetry” somehow addresses the status of the poetic sign in hospital and the status of hospital as a poetic sign. This mirroring effect where each system feeds on the other reveals a relation that in the end may turn out not to be particularly strange.

How poetic art is strangely (or not) used by hospitals

12Two examples show how the poem can become a specific format which is supposed, it is assumed, to communicate ideas with more human intensity. For the 70th anniversary of the NHS, Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals posted on their website a two-minute-long video of a rhyming poem entitled “We Care”:

We care about you, and making you well,
and we’ll pick you back up, however you fell.
We’re here all year round, all day and all night,
We’ll do what we can to make you feel right.
We’re here from day one when the world is brand new,
and we’re here at the end helping you through…

13And the poem thus unfolds its sixteen rhyming couplets, or thirty-two four-feet lines, alternately adopting and withdrawing from the anapaestic rhythm. The style is direct, easy, and totally un-metaphorical. Each line is said by a different speaker, and the succession of multifarious faces on the screen makes visible the heterogeneous nature of the relentlessly anaphoric “we” which is the guiding principle of the whole piece and who addresses a “you.” The listener then becomes aware that he or she is not just someone listening to a poetic celebration, but also an NHS patient, the poem assuming that each one of us will go through the hospital doors at least once in our life. One may now wonder why the NHS is here using poetry. Why espouse conventional poetic signs and have the tribute fit into a rhyming, beating, poetic format? The historical tradition of celebrating in verse combines with a catchier use of poetry, which is substantially exploited by commercials for instance, and relies on the ability of the poetic form to capture the attention of the listener whose ear is first drawn to the promoted signifiers before (sometimes) making sense of the beating succession of words. In the case of “We Care,” there is more than mere catchiness. To an extent, one perceives a mix of pleasure and ethics. Shelley in A Defence of Poetry defines poetry’s “effect upon society” in declaring that “poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure” (Shelley 116). The ritualized and reassuring return of the rhyme, the comforting four feet, and the soothing regular succession of various faces and accents, somehow outline a bond that ascribes an ethical dimension to the poem. “We Care,” its title, its direct message, its voices and its formal arrangements hence all evoke a common moral sense that relies on a supportive cadence and whose substance, because it is poeticized, can even be memorized and in the end resonate in, and belong to, each listener.

  • 3 Cabinet Memorandum 1945.

14The 70th anniversary of the NHS was also celebrated by a long poem by Owen Sheers who was commissioned by the medical institution. The Scottish poet as a result published To Provide All People (2018), a phrase borrowed from Aneurin Bevan’s speech of 13th December 1945.3 This hundred-page long poem evokes the “birth,” “life” and “death” of the NHS throughout the last 70 years. In this work, Sheers does not proceed to much formal innovation nor does he display any exceptional creativity. To Provide All People is poetic only in so far as it is organised in stanzas, unrhyming lines and only rare instances where the signifiers are given promotion. The message is on the whole direct and literal. And as in “We Care” the multiplicity of voices (medical staff, patients, relatives and political figures), marked by changes of typography or simply announced at the head of stanzas, again foregrounds the collective experience at stake within the hospital, the ethical bonds, the mutual reliance. To Provide All People in fact provides an accessible poetic experience for all people.

15Both “We Care” and Owen Sheers’ commissioned poem show how the NHS exploits poetry. The soothing cadence, the reassuring voice of familiar figures like the nurses, the comforting normativity of beats and stresses, the clear message, and the possible memorization, are all echoes, on the poetic level, of what hospital offers to patients: comfort, help, clear diagnoses (at least as clear as possible) and individual re-empowerment. In thus relying on the normative aspects of poetry, the NHS celebrates its own normative and benevolent discipline, a discipline based on a network of multifarious people who ensure specific regulated tasks round the clock. Beyond this manifest correspondence between two normative systems—the poetic and the medical—, and beyond the social / ethical dimension of the multivocality likewise common to both systems, the NHS is quite likely to be relying also on the emotional effect of the poetic form. All too aware that hospital is a place where emotions are intensified, anyone who reads or listens to these poetic pieces may perceive, in the economy of words and their constrained arrangement, a magnified emotional turmoil. Both “We Care” and Sheers’ poem deal with the flimsy frontier between life and death. Only twenty-two seconds into “We Care,” the listener has hardly entered the hospital when the issue of death is already broached and narrowly associated with birth: “We’re here from day one when the world is brand new, / and we’re here at the end helping you through.” The flippant rhyme with “new” makes that final going “through” banal and so expectable. A poetic taming of dizzyingly ontological thinking that Owen Sheers likewise offers with Alice, a patient:

Am I scared? Yes, a little. But you know,
pain does a lot in dispelling a fear of death.
And also, for me, it’s not so much a fear of what’s next
but rather what I’ll be leaving behind. (Sheers 111)

16Both NHS initiatives then, as they gather listeners around a common beat, repetitive patterns and simple metrical language, ensure a public function; and within these formal norms, as they deal with critical moments of existence, they prompt ontological concerns. This easy combination of the public and the private seems to be what is sought by the NHS in their reliance on the poetic form.

17The NHS has not merely used poetry for self-celebration, it has also been increasingly welcoming poetry within its buildings. And the intimate experience pointed out by commissioned poems becomes the primary material for individual poetic creation by those most directly concerned—hospital staff and patients.

Hospital: a less and less strange place for poetic creation

18In the US, at the turn of the 21st century, Rita Charon, a doctor, provided the initial impetus for what she calls “narrative medicine” by which patients are encouraged to tell the story of their illness. This practice has been quite successful and has reached the UK. A direct consequence of this trend is the development of poetry workshops in hospitals, addressed to patients and / or to staff members, and sometimes led by distinguished poets. At Cambridge University Hospitals, the poet Sean Borodale, for instance, during the COVID crisis, participated in a programme called “Beyond the Mask” in which he guided patients and former patients to write poems about nurses and midwives (Cambridge University Hospitals “Poet Sean’s Invitation”): the initiative was prompted by a desire to hear as many voices as possible. For the 75th anniversary of the NHS, in 2023, the poet Kim Moore took part in the project “Untold stories of the NHS” at Trafford General Hospital in Manchester. There she led weekly poetry workshops “to help inspire staff to pen their own stories” (NHS England “Award winning poet”). These initiatives, centred around the hospital staff, were preceded by initiatives by other poets who looked more closely at the patient’s experience. Fiona Sampson devoted much time and energy to the convergence of poetry writing and healthcare (she published The Healing Word in 1998). According to Sampson, poetry is designed to bring order to chaos and she makes it really clear: in hospital, poetry-writing is therapeutic. In the foreword to Sampson’s edition of Creative Writing in Health and Social Care (2004), which leads a collective reflection around the role of creative writing in spaces of care, Christina Patterson insists that while poetry is a unique opportunity to “capture what it’s like to be alive” (Sampson 2004, 9), it is definitely not “a system for the all-around improvement of human beings” (10). She insists that “poetry is not a pill and it isn’t an anti-depressant. Its benefits are—poetic” (11). And as such, it plays a role, if not a curing role, at least a therapeutic one. If definitively “not a magic medium” (11), poetry is a means to address the complex nature of the patient beyond his or her biological disease or ailment. In the process of creativity, the patient submits his or her experience of hospital discipline to the constraints of poetic discipline and may there find a means to subjectively adapt or adjust to these constraints, and an opportunity to participate in the retrieval of his or her pouvoir d’agir, as Ricoeur defines recovery (Ricoeur 2013, 15). What is simultaneously at stake, then, is the submission to forms specific to the poetic genre and a process of individual accomplishment within the hospital institution. Fiona Sampson exposes this simultaneity as the convergence of:

art—by which we mean, let us say for now, a certain kind of man-made experience and way of going on which avoids what is reductive and which often exhibits an urge towards transcendence of particular circumstance and individual experience;

systems of provision, from the bureaucratic to the clinical;

the vulnerability of the human individual, who is this case is receiving care. (Sampson 2004, 17)

19The whole challenge of this convergence is the adjustment of three different fields, three different levels of experience and, most especially, three different modes of expression and language. The patient’s vulnerability, within this creative context, is therefore envisaged as an empowering source.

20In 2009, Donald Singer, clinician and medical researcher, and the poetry scholar, Michael Hulse—himself a poet—, funded the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. Each year, original poems by health professionals, patients and former patients, are awarded this Hippocrates Prize. This increasing poetry output reveals a desire that may come close to being a need, to give vent to what is uniquely experienced in such a specific place as hospital. If poetry can admittedly not replace chemotherapy nor relieve the workloads imposed on health professionals, poetry writing has been increasingly considered as a form of soothing creative release (or relief) by which the lay poets find expression for their ontological and existential crisis, give shape to their intimacy with death, enjoy the use of strangely sounding medical words, and find comfort in the conciseness of a form well-suited to the staff’s pressurized tempo. All these aspects seem to offer a fruitful combination for poetic inspiration at the heart of that strange place—that place where patients never go with much enthusiasm.

21Because poetry, along with other artistic practices, has increasingly been written in hospital, some poems which look at hospitals generally, quite logically turn out to shed light on the role of poetry and other arts in hospital. The intriguing mise-en-abyme thus produced at once familiarizes and defamiliarizes the presence of poetry in hospital, as well as the presence of hospital in poetry: the self-reflexive outlook somehow embeds this strangeness and offers an inkling of some individual perceptions of art in this strange place.

What is hospital doing in poems?

22Among the countless poems that are set in hospital, our attention will be drawn to those which specifically refer to the presence of arts or poetry within hospital, like “How to negotiate Hospital Corridors” by Julia Darling, a Newcastle poet who died in 2005. In her poem, Darling addresses a list of recommendations to hospitalized patients, like how to “weave [their] way” (l.1) through various people, how to make sure they head “in the right direction” (l.6) or even how to buy “bacon sandwiches with sauce” (l.11) from the counter and let the crumbs fall on the floor to make sure, like Tom Thumb, they can “find [their] way home” (l.14). The tone is at once unexpectedly flippant and shows a profound consciousness of what is existentially at stake in these corridors. Her poem is composed of four tercets and a couplet, and the third stanza goes:

Stop to look at the art that someone has battled
to hang onto the walls, be an art critic, hum with opinion.
Keep your head up, back straight, collar up. (ll.7-9)

23The hospital corridor becomes a place of exhibition for the generic “the art.” The absence of details about what precisely is on the wall, barring visual access to the reader, gives emphasis to the function of the art piece rather than to its nature, and thus simultaneously reveals its replaceability. Like the patients themselves, the art will end up being taken down and replaced. But the peculiar function of the patient as well is here highlighted and shifting: the hospital corridor, by exhibiting art pieces, transiently and benevolently lures the patients into believing that they are perambulating in a museum, expertly assessing the artwork. This performance of the art critic is at once intellectual and physical, as the poetic voice insists on the impersonation of the appropriate posture. In the corridor, that is in the margins of the hospital room, of the consultation room or the operating theatre, the patients are here allowed not to submit to the disciplinary therapeutic protocol. As they “hum with opinion,” they enlarge their usually limited functions of patient and they for once give voice to their subjective tastes. While they may not “criticize” their treatment with which they must comply for better efficiency, here, in this marginal museum, they are individual critics.

24The physical negotiation of the title by which each turn in the corridor must be apprehended with care, is echoed by the political negotiation “someone” had to go through to have these paintings hung on the wall, and by Darling’s poetical negotiation with the discipline of the tercet to have these paintings fit in her poem. Thus caught in a mesh of negotiations, compromises and formal constraints, this generic “the art” nonetheless enlarges the hospital corridor in rehumanizing it, in ethically opening it to norms other than medical norms. The context of the artistic message remains materially unchanged (the corridor remains a corridor), and yet the artistic message itself transiently modifies the conditions of being in this context: the art on the hospital wall modifies the status of the patient for a while.

25Deryn Rees-Jones, an Anglo-Welsh poet based in Liverpool, sets her long unrhyming poem, “Siren” (2019), in the waiting-room of a hospital that is about to close down and move places. The persona’s eyes meet the signs “on the floor”: “Courage, challenge, competency”—the paratactic, odd language of management ironically turned into hospital signs that are meant to encourage their teams and their patients. Then, the persona’s eyes move to the walls:

I started to pick out the art from the walls. You had to pause, just for a moment, to distinguish between what was a sign and what was a picture. There were posters of smiling nurses and chief executives and patients being advised on how to have their say. No one looked real. Or perhaps they looked too real.

On the wall opposite me was a shifting digital image of flowers. To my left, a small frame oil of horses racing over Beechers Brook. Behind me, bedded into the stairwell, stood a woman twenty feet high opening her arms to the geese which surrounded her. The birds dallied at her feet and some of them as her arms opened slipped up the canvas—rising, rising up. (24; emphasis mine)

26That strange place does not discriminate between its own informative signs and art pieces: they all fall together to fill in the space, fill in the patients’ eyes and keep them busy while they are waiting. The persona’s eyes measure the odd effet de réel produced by the photos, people looking so artificial that they come close to what they truly are. Then “opposite,” “to my left,” “behind me” images saturate the field of vision and produce a complete discord. The modernity of digital flowers coexists with the hackneyed oil fixed in a frame, and with a mural, just as outdated, from which the birds want to escape—an echo to the patients’ burning desire to leave this place where they have not chosen to be, and where mere decoration has been hastily mistaken for art.

27Unlike in Julia Darling’s poem, where art prompts the patient to transiently retrieve a form of subjective empowerment and where “the art” enlarges the narrow corridor which for a short while becomes a museum, in Rees-Jones’ poem, art is chaotic, oppressive, mismatched and all spatial frontiers collapse as a sort of hackneyed street art oddly disorients the patient. Probably part of the “challenge, courage, competency” managerial ideology, all this was quite likely initiated by a decorative programme, regardless of what the patients may and can possibly take in. This scene reveals a utilitarian approach to the arts based on the too quickly apprehended belief that any art can soothe (or worse, entertain) any one regardless of the immediate context, their physical and emotional vulnerabilities; a belief that any sign will do as long as it is hung in front of a reader’s eyes, regardless of the context and of the addressee’s emotional condition.

28Sarah Broom, a New Zealander poet who spent years in England, goes even further as she more openly expresses the idea that art in this strange place may even be frankly unwelcome by some vulnerable patients. In “Ward 64” (2010), inspired by her personal experience, she evokes her feeling of exhaustion bedridden in oncology:

the curtain’s beige and orange checks
do nothing to divide us
when her drip beeps I think it’s mine
when she hears the bad news
I have to put my iPod on to keep it out
across the room he’s lost his wedding ring
because he’s got so thin
skinny fingers
I’d better watch out for that
there is poetry all over the walls
of oncology
and I want to get out

29The total absence of punctuation reads as a formal translation of this too free circulation of sounds, rumours and fears throughout the ward. Part of this chaos, at the end of the poem, poetry itself leaves the horizontal page to cover the walls. Real or imagined, literal or metaphorical, this excess of “poetry” (“all over”) is not welcomed by the patient: “and I want to get out” is the expression of an exhausted being confined within “walls” saturated with poetic words that are not hers, but words of other poets. The hospitalized poet does not feel at home here and wants to get out of this poetic hospital, or hospitalized poetry—that strange place where poetry has oddly become a hospital sign on the wall. The aura of literature is on the verge of becoming merely decorative—or palliative. The ethical function of literature, which derives from its ancestral meditative role and is meant to lead the reader to encounter another mind within his or her own solitude, is here deficient. The bond supposedly prompted by poetry reading, the dismantlement of chronological time supposedly triggered by the successive readings of the same poems, are here inefficient. Poetry will make nothing happen, for the patient will not read.

30Sarah Broom here draws our attention to that trend of “hospital wall poems” to which Diana Hendry, a Scottish poet and children’s author, submits a piece. Her poem “Poem for a Hospital Wall” (2001), included in an anthology Tools of the Trade: Poems for New Doctors (2016) given to graduating doctors in Scotland, clearly announces its double status as a poem and a hospital sign on the wall. The poem is designed to have a function and posits the context of its own exhibition and reading:

Love has been loitering
down this corridor
has been seen
chatting up out-patients
spinning the wheels of wheelchairs
fluttering the pulse of the night nurse
appearing, disguised, as a bunch of grapes and a smile
hiding in dreams
handing out wings in orthopedics
adding a wee drappie
aphrodisiaccy
to every prescription.
No heart is ever by-passed by Love.

Love has been loitering down this corridor
is highly infectious
mind how you go. If you smile
you might catch it.

31The poetic voice points out the omnipresence of love, of the heart, beyond its cardiac function, here, “down this corridor”—a repeated deictic line which redefines the status of the poetic sign as it transforms the poem into a sign board that points at immediacy or shows the way. When the poetic voice finally addresses a “you,” the status of the reader is then redefined: no mere poetic reader or “art critic” (as in Julia Darling), he or she is primarily a patient who stands before the sign on the wall and whom the poem seeks to brighten up. Instead of enlarging (or relaxing) the status of the patient, as art should be doing in hospital, this poem, which pretends to help the patient, rather freezes him or her into that vulnerable status. Moreover, it in fact estranges itself from its own substance as it deliberately and ostentatiously posits itself as another type of sign, one that serves the peculiarity of the place and which verges on self-help. Unlike Sarah Broom’s poem, which gives no detail about the poems on the wall but only expresses the reader’s reluctant reaction to them, Hendry’s poem says nothing about the patient-reader’s reception. The readers of the printed poem (us) are left alone to imagine what it would be like to read what we are reading (i.e. a poem) as a hospital sign.

32This brief consideration of the presence and status of poetry in hospital seems to reveal that the question “what is poetry doing in hospital?” turns out to have a multiplicity of possible answers, only some of which we have been able to address here. Poetry is, in some situations, exploited by the hospital through commissioned poems for instance, as was the case with the NHS anniversary. It thus ensures a public function as it holds together, both formally, socially and, or so one supposes, emotionally: a common poetic frame contains the social group. Hospital is also a place in which patients and staff have found, for some an opportunity, for others a cathartic urgency, to give poetic shapes to their experience there: the therapeutic function of poetry has thus increasingly been considered as, if not replacing care, at least accompanying it as the patient finds in writing poetry a means of subjective re-empowerment and as the creative health professionals give vent to their peculiar experience. The increasing presence of poetry in hospital results in hospital poems dealing with the presence of poetry in hospital: a poetic strategy that in fact cleverly questions the functions of poetry as they have been set out here. Indeed, “the art” changes—or enlarges—the status of the patient for a while. Yet, such an introduction of art into a strange place requires serious consideration. If Julia Darling amusingly pictures the patient as a transient, replaceable and fragile art critic, Deryn Rees-Jones shows how the ill-controlled, chaotic managerial piling up of the arts collapses with hospital self-promotion: it all appears as a surfeit of signs, poorly selected and definitely without any coherent structured meaning. As for Sarah Broom, she highlights the patient’s unwillingness to submit to still another type of formal constraint: hospital discipline is already a burden that can do without being coupled with another formal discipline. The poems “all over the walls” thus fail to convey any message to an addressee reluctant to receive anything. Diana Hendry, with her poster-poem, shows how, when the supportive function of the poem is too obvious, the poem is reduced to a hospital sign, a common poster, and the patient has no access to a status other than that of patient. He or she reads as a patient.

33In the poems analysed here, the main point of contact between poetry and hospital is the word or, more fundamentally, the sign. In hospital, the use and circulation of words is logically not random; as in poetry, each word counts. But bringing poetry to hospital, and hospital into poetry, means significantly unsettling the status of these signs. We saw how the poetic sign can acquire an unexpected utility in becoming a hospital sign (to pay tribute, to entertain or support the patient); how this transformation may amuse some patients whose status may be transiently changed. But it is also apt to be ill-perceived by some patients who may feel frozen into the status of a vulnerable patient and who feel entrapped within the system of hospital signs.

34Poetry can elsewhere deal with hospital without compromising the poetic nature of its signs. Some poems are actually written with no pre-determined intention nor utility, neither social, nor therapeutic, nor helpful. And the readers of these poems are primarily readers, who give no priority to their being or having been patients, but apprehend the poems with the whole complexity of their human nature.

35Hospitalization has hence been powerfully poeticized by various poets who have bent to creative poetic forms the social, physical and ontological turmoil experienced in hospital. Sarah Broom’s, Julia Darling’s and Deryn Rees-Jones’ poems quoted here belong to this category and, among others, we could mention Dannie Abse, Helen Dunmore, Denise Riley, Jo Shapcott, Peter Reading, Hugo Williams, Christopher Reid, etc. All have poeticized the experience within this unique, too familiar—and yet always strange—place.

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Bibliography

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Notes

1 Among which Zook lists Miller, Hickman and Lemasters; Ulrich; Hathorn and Nanda.

2 “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” (Eliot 40).

3 Cabinet Memorandum 1945.

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References

Electronic reference

Elise Brault-Dreux, What is poetry doing in hospitals?Miranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 18 April 2024, connection on 22 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/57840; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.57840

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About the author

Elise Brault-Dreux

Maître de conférences-HDR 
Université Polytechnique des Hauts-de-France
elise.brault@uphf.fr

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Copyright

CC-BY-NC-4.0

The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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