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Communicating beyond words

Reading and writing poetry is not new to nursing. Sue Spencer believes that the early pioneers, including Florence Nightingale, were well versed in classical poetry, and that today's nurses could also benefit hugely from poetry …

I make no apologies from returning to one of my favourite topics - nursing and poetry. At this moment in time, I am supposed to be writing an essay exploring why I have studied the MA Creative Writing and what I might do with it. As usual I am having problems putting aside the time and willingly put it off. Well I thought I might try doing two things at once, so here goes.

I'm pretty sure the reading and writing of poetry is not new to nursing. I am sure that early pioneers of nursing, including Florence Nightingale, were well versed (excuse the pun) in classical poetry. They may well have turned to it for comfort and solace at difficult times.

In the intervening 100 years, nursing has striven hard to ally itself with science and medicine (seeking recognition and equality as a result), and sidelined any exploration of the arts in nursing. Although there have been many scholars in nursing that have talked about the "art of nursing" and "artistry" in nursing, this does not seem to have resulted in a recognition that maybe nurses might need sustenance form the arts and humanities within their education.

There are exceptions and in recent years there seems to be a reassuring number of developments seeking to integrate the arts into nurse education programmes, both at preregistration level and postqualifying.

While I have been putting off writing I have spent quite a long time "researching" what types of activities are happening in relation to poetry and nursing. I use the term "research" in its loosest sense as this usually involves surfing the internet and attempting not to be distracted by poetry websites in general (not easy to do, I'll tell you).

So why do some of us think it is a good idea to expose nurses to poetry? What seems to be the main argument is that poetry has a unique way of communicating language to us. Although mean and unimaginative English teachers may have put many of us off poetry in our teens (or younger), I believe there is an instinctive impulse in all of us to write poetry and respond to verse and song.

One of the ways to tell whether you think a poem is good or not is to hear it read aloud and attend to how you feel when you hear it. I was at a reading last Friday by Ruth Padel up here in Newcastle, and during many of her poems the hairs of my neck stood on end - to me that's good poetry.

Communicating beyond words, building an effect that can then help us find other thoughts and feelings. That's why I think poetry is good for nurses and nursing. Nursing is physically, psychologically and emotionally demanding and we all need ways of coping. In supporting practitioners with these demands, we need new ways to help people access how they feel during difficult times and when things go well; how to hold on to the good experiences and help people move on and cope with stressful situations. I believe poetry has the potential to tap into this and provide a constructive and creative way forward for many people.

The MA has given me confidence in articulating what I believe are the issues and also enabled me to read poems aloud to students, being less apologetic and more assertive about engaging students to listen to poetry as well as read it.

Next week will be my next challenge as I spend time in the local hospice talking to carers and seeing whether they might be interested in a writing group - think it's about time I got out there and tested the water.

Do you like to read and write poetry? Why not share with us some of your poems?  Your comments: (Terms and conditions apply)

"I wrote the following poem because I felt that the technicolour photographs in my nursing textbooks were gory, whereas one can face an actual 'gory' situation and not be bothered by it, because you are so taken up in working through it.

This is my short poem.


We studied gory pictures
The photo-colour of flesh and blood
More grotesque than the reality
Of helping people.
But as we learned to control
Feelings of disgust and horror
My abiding memory
is of the struggle to
Overcome the smell
Of the gangrenous, rotting
Dying feet of a diabetic.

I hope my body dies
After I am dead."

- Margaret Boles, Dublin