October 9, 2014

WHAT’S UP DOC?: Shakespeare for Medical Students: How Can Reading Poetry Help Our Medical Careers?

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Poetry, like many of the Arts, becomes an intriguing phenomenon if we stop to ask why it existed and why it continues to exist. Why do amateur and professional poets continue to write, and why do they attract readers? Why do individuals from all walks of life — from the instrument dealer in my hometown to numerous presidents of our country — make time to read Shakespeare, the essential English poet-playwright? A poem or play does not protect or heal us; it does not provide basic needs for survival. Yet poetry and drama continue to be, for many people, an important part of their lives. Do medical students and doctors also fall into this category of people who consider poetry to be important in their lives? Yes and no, and I want to use this article to explore more of the “yes” side through two brief stories.

Last Friday morning, before small group sessions, I selected and read one passage from Hamlet; reading in the morning, I should mention, is part of my daily routine. Here is the passage:

Speak to any so-called professional literary critic about these passages and you will undoubtedly learn about the “theoretical” approaches that can be applied to understand these passages. But that is not my goal, and I follow Harold Bloom in believing that the only useful critical method is the Self, or our own experiences. How we feel and think at a particular moment should influence our readings of Shakespeare more than any pre-described critical method, such as deconstruction, new historicism or post-colonialism. Again, one does not (and should not) need to have any exposure to “literary theory” to gain value from reading Shakespeare’s texts. Our fresh, individual responses to Shakespeare, colored by our daily activities, is what I believe to be most illuminating and interesting.

My small group session discussed a cancer case that Friday morning and I remember asking myself: What would a cancer patient get out of reading Hamlet’s speech? Will the patient take that speech literally or ironically, as Hamlet seems to have intended? How do I, as a physician, gain a clearer view of a cancer patient through Hamlet’s speech? A cancer patient who might be confronting death will have different thoughts than me, and understanding his or her thought processes would be vital if I were the physician. I may not understand problems like pain or fear as well as a patient because I’m not going through the same problems, but reading Shakespeare and sensitizing myself to those issues through language can help in better understanding a patient.

In this manner, our individual experiences are colored by Shakespeare’s texts, and, conversely, Shakespeare’s texts are also colored by our life experiences. I remember feeling optimistic on Friday morning about my scheduled presentation, and so I read what Hamlet said with less irony than what Hamlet perhaps intended — that is to say: “What a piece of work is a man!” Man is an impressive creation, and I mean this seriously, not ironically as Hamlet likely felt. By imagining these fantasy scenarios, I am engaging in how the scene and dialogue happens, rather than just what happens. How Hamlet says something tells us as much, if not more, than what he says. This skill can be generalized to reading other scenarios that we encounter, whether that be a puzzling patient or an elusive scientific problem.

My second story is about a patient I met at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. There, cerebral palsy patients worked with volunteers as part of a sports rehabilitation program. I recall one session when my patient, Ben, was feeling uncomfortable, and he mentioned I could spend that day working with someone else. I reassured Ben that I still wanted to be with him that day, and that we could talk about his busier schoolwork instead of playing basketball. Ben had started high school six months ago, and he mentioned that he enjoyed English class. This prompted me to ask whether he liked poetry, which was answered with an immediate “Yes!” I then began reciting a popular Robert Frost poem that I had recently re-read: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep.” Ben completed the poem: “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” Both Ben and I have “miles to go” to reach our goals, as different as those goals may be, and Robert Frost’s language wonderfully captures our mutual feelings. Many of us have “miles to go” to reach goals — one does not have to have a prior interest in Robert Frost’s poems to gain value from this and other poems. Poetry crystallizes feelings in language, and the endless varieties of poems offer us the language to better describe and understand the endless varieties of feelings that patients might feel.

For Ben and me, poetry does more than just crystallize feelings in language; poetry gives us aesthetic pleasure, much like good music or good art. With more exposure to texts, anyone can develop an ear for good prose and verse. “Good” is certainly subjective, even within one individual, and I find that my appreciation of Shakespeare depends on what I do and how I feel while reading him. Virginia Woolf, for instance, likes to read Shakespeare after she finishes her writing. In one diary entry dated April 13, 1930, she wrote:

Hearing that, I had better wrap up this article and get back to reading my Shakespeare.

Tony Sun is a first-year MD-PhD student at Weill Cornell/Sloan-Kettering/Rockefeller University.  He may be reached at [email protected].  What’s Up, Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester..