Alongside the scalpel, the antibiotic and the X-ray, a new therapy is set to take its place in medicine's armamentarium – poetry. Prizes worth £15,000 for poems on a medical theme are to be awarded in a new international competition next month organised to celebrate the healing power of words.
Six finalists have been shortlisted from more than 1,600 entries from 31 countries. The winners of the Hippocrates Prize will be announced at a symposium on Poetry and Medicine on 10 April, at the University of Warwick, which is supporting the prize jointly with the Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine.
The competition attracted entries from professional poets including Pauline Stainer, the author of nine collections of poetry, C K Stead, a distinguished writer, and Sian Hughes, whose first book of poems appeared last year. They are finalists in the "open" category. The Hippocrates Prize is also offered in an NHS category open to National Health Service-related employees and health students. The shortlisted candidates in this category are Wendy French, who runs creative writing classes in the NHS and has published two collections of poetry, Alex Josephy, an educationist working with NHS doctors, and Edward Picot, who manages a GP practice.
Judges include Dannie Abse, the poet, James Naughtie, the BBC Radio 4 Today presenter, and Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, the NHS medical director. James Naughtie said: "These poems were exhilarating to read. It was very moving to sense the struggles which have to be kept private but can be allowed to show through in poetry. And in the general poetry, there were some powerful poems, with a lot of energy under the bonnet."
Sir Bruce Keogh said: "Some people are concerned that, as health services become more complex and more reliant on technology, there is a risk that we may lose sight of the personal and human dimension of care. The entries for the competition have shown that the emotional and creative side of the NHS is as strong as ever. The poems that I have had the pleasure of reading have reinforced my view that medicine is an art as well as a science and that there is poetry in its soul."
Dannie Abse said: "There was an astonishing amount of talent among NHS-related entries. The judges were also allowed great pleasure from the inventiveness, wit and poignancy of the more professional poets."
Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, welcomed the competition. "Traditionally poetry speaks to big moments in your life so it is quite natural for people to turn to it when thinking about illness, whether they are patients or medical professionals," she said. "The fact that this competition has elicited poems from major poets with international reputations – poets who wouldn't normally enter a poetry prize – tells us something about the importance of the relationship between poetry and medicine."
The winning poems, together with 20 commended poems in each category, are to be published in a book.
Medicine in verse: The expert's view
"Liberty Bodice", by Sian Hughes
A few days after the operation the nurses let you in the shower room alone. The one with the mirror.
The dressing on your left side is felted, fixed like the old-fashioned vests you wore to boarding school –
from this angle, you're twelve, embarrassed, packed away. From the other, you're a woman.
You turn one way, and back again. The nurses listen outside. But it's later you cry, in your sleep, secretly,
like homesick girls in the dormitory, down both sides of your face into your brand new, flatter pyjamas.
The view of Fiona Sampson, the editor of Poetry Review "Beautifully- observed, with the undeniable authority detail lends."
"Time to Get Ready", by Edward Picot
Take off that hair;
take off that self-assured air;
take out those teeth;
take that spring from your step and replace it
with a hesitant shuffle.
Take the fresh whites of your eyes
and smudge them yellow.
Take off that sexual appeal:
you won't be needing that any more.
The respect of others: your self-respect too:
they'll have to go.
Put on this extra weight,
these jowls, these liver-spots,
this tremor, these restless nights,
this peevish fretful manner,
this uncertainty, this fear,
Come and lie down. It's getting dark.
Fiona Sampson: "Wry and shocking"
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