What Poetry Means for Doctors and Patients During a Pandemic

When Rafael Campo took over as poetry editor at The Journal of the American Medical Association a little over a year ago, he wasn’t expecting to field quite so many submissions. (Yes, in between case reports and clinical trial results, JAMA publishes original poetry in every issue.) Some of the poems are charming and poignant, like this excerpt from one in a recent issue, about surviving quarantine with a significant other:

Even though a kiss carries more than we know

Even with this

Still will I wish

Won’t you be mine,

My quarantine.

Others wrestle with more serious topics like a patient dying of cancer, or marvel at the magic of now-quotidien medical technologies like CT machines.

At first, Campo says, he got about 20 or 30 poems each week. Some are from patients or family caregivers. Most come from doctors and nurses. But as the pandemic got underway, more and more poems arrived. Now, his inbox is bursting with over a hundred weekly submissions. “It is overwhelming. I’ll be honest. But it’s also really heartening,” he says.

Courtesy of Rafael Campo

Campo is uniquely suited to appreciate such a task. In addition to being a primary care physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, he is also the author of nine books of poetry and director of writing and literature programs for the Arts and Humanities Initiative at Harvard Medical School. WIRED sat down with Campo to talk about the role of poetry in medicine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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WIRED: Why do you think poetry has become so important to so many doctors during the pandemic?

Rafael Campo: I think doctors in particular are really searching for ways to give voice to their experiences of this terrible disease and what we’re all going through in confronting it.

It’s particularly poignant, I think, because we’re so isolated by this virus. We’re all practicing physical distancing and social distancing, so I think poetry becomes a way of connecting with other people and having our story heard. So I find it actually really energizing. It helps me feel less isolated, less disconnected, as I read through these poems.

WIRED: Is there something unique about poetry that makes that kind of connection possible?

RC: We’re hardwired to hear the kinds of rhythms that are present in poetry and the ways in which the rhythms of our bodies are expressed in meter, in the music of poetry. I think especially now, when we’re feeling in some ways estranged from our own bodies and disconnected, having that visceral experience of hearing the music and language is just compelling.

I think other reasons have to do with the brevity of poetry. In a way, poetry fits into the fragmented spaces that we have as doctors, as we’re running around trying to deal with this crisis.

Then one other thing is that I always associate poetry with activism. When we think of some of the protests that are going on in the streets now—people are out there chanting—they’re actually using a spoken-word form of poetry.

Poetry has that ability to grab us and to speak in the most urgent terms. It’s a very physical language. It calls us to action. I always think back to my time when I was really early in my training as a physician, during the height of the AIDS crisis. Similarly, then people were out in the streets shouting: “Silence equals death! Silence equals death!” That still resonates in my mind today. Those poems, that urgent language, really changed the course of that pandemic.

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