Reflective Dissection of Poetry in Times of COVID-19: Thoughts from a Practitioner

We are pleased to present the contribution of Ourania Varsou, BSc, MBChB, PgCert, PhD, AfHEA, RET Fellow and
Lecturer in Anatomy at the University of Glasgow.

Recently, I delivered an online interactive poetry workshop for the ISTUD Master in Applied Narrative Medicine. The learners came from different parts of the healthcare sector, in Italy, and some had faced the raw realities of COVID-19 as frontline health professionals. Being aware of that, while designing the workshop, I was careful when it came to the poem selection. I wanted, through these poems, to empower the learners to have a balanced interactive discussion on topics such as the patients’ voice/perspective, universal interdependence and the fine balance between humans and nature, human interconnections, and ultimately hope while also considering all of the above in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Written poetry is an essential component of literature and spoken word poetry has existed even before written language was evolved having strong links with oral traditions and performance. For instance, in ancient Greece, lyric poetry (e.g. Sappho’s poems) depicted human suffering or reflected important socio-political and cultural topics of the era and epic poetry (e.g. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) attempted to capture the extraordinary nature of humans. Both are not uncommon findings in modern day spoken word and written poetry. Research has shown that reciting poetry can elicit emotional responses that engage primary reward areas of the human brain. Poetry can also increase emotional intelligence. In addition, it can allow healthcare professionals to appreciate human illness/suffering and develop compassion.

For the ISTUD online workshop, after discussion with the programme directors that allowed me to better understand the learning needs of this particular cohort, I chose the following three poems:

Although John Donne’s, For Whom the Bell Tolls, may initially have a gloomy meaning with the exploration of death, it does highlight the importance of human interconnections and perhaps there is even a glimpse of hope with the couplet No man is an island, Entire of itself.. During the workshop, these thoughts were discussed with the learners stressing that we can overcome any “bell” together with solidarity and hope in the face of adversity which is COVID-19 at the moment. Nuala Watt’s, The EYE chart, discusses the patient voice/perspective and it combines eloquently the written element with the visual aspect. Through this poem, during the workshop, there was exploration of the narrative element of patients’ experiences and voices. As I have discussed in my recent YAS blog on the links between medical humanities and COVID-19, outputs including poems will form “powerful narratives documenting the current pandemic” providing similar snapshot of our experiences to future generations. Finally, I used three stanzas from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence that promoted discussion on the links between humans and nature, universal interdependence, empowerment, and hope. The Age Teaching Youth painting contextualised some of the above thoughts in visual art with a focus on interdependence.

As a practitioner, I found this session eye-opening in terms of the emotions and reflective thoughts generated as part of the interactive discussion. The impact of COVID-19 on frontline health professionals is apparent and it is important to identify and nurture ways to promote reflective discussion on difficult topics using narratives such as poetry.

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