Rafael Campo leaning on a wall (© Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
Dr. Rafael Campo, physician and poet, in Boston in 2018 (© Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Dr. Daniel Becker wakes up around 4:30 a.m. every day, pours a cup of coffee, then disappears into his office for an hour.

There, he writes poems before starting his day treating patients. Becker is a physician at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and he is among a growing number of American doctors who are embracing the healing power of poetry.

“Writing poetry makes me intensely curious about people and how they got to my office — not just their diagnoses and list of medications and lab results, but what it’s like [for them] to deal with chronic illness or an acute illness,” Becker says.

Daniel Becker sitting on a couch, black dog watching him (© Madaline B. Harrison)
Dr. Daniel Becker with his Labrador retriever, Monk, named after jazz pianist Thelonious Monk (© Madaline B. Harrison)

Poetry makes him a better listener at the bedside, he says. In his poem, “Home Visit,” he writes of going to see a patient in Southside Virginia, an “old woman with electric hair and petrified eyes.” Before finding her in the kitchen, he edges through her home “front porch to back, generations un-gapped.” He has driven there with a nurse.

The nurse is the guide, telling me
how to greet other drivers,
lift two fingers from the steering wheel,
only two, show some restraint

Poetry’s role in healing

Poetry has long had a role in healing. “We can look back across history and across many different cultures and see examples of healers in a broad sense using poetry to help people cope with illness,” says Dr. Rafael Campo, a physician at Harvard Medical School and an award-winning poet.

Becker refers to the great American poet Walt Whitman, who often sat with patients during the Civil War at Washington hospitals. Becker notes in his poem “The Best Storyteller Award,” that Whitman said a poet “drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them on their feet.” Becker understands that writers and doctors do not always see the same story.

In a tale about a man who crosses a river
listeners feel the breeze and the motion
while doctors recall that case of disembarkation vertigo

Becker wonders “how to make a line of poetry speak for everyone.”

In the 19th century, Britain’s John Keats dedicated himself to poetry late in his career as a surgeon and became one of the greatest English poets. Today, Campo points out,  American medical journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Annals of Internal Medicine, have entire sections devoted to poetry by physicians.

“I’m getting 200 submissions a month, and I can only publish one poem a week,” says Campo, who serves as poetry editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association. “There’s a lot of interest.”

Campo says he looks for poems that “make the hair on the back of my neck stand up and reach into my heart.”

Giving people a voice

“One of the reasons poetry is so powerful is because it gives people a voice,” Campo said. “It allows us to really hear another person’s voice and be present in their experience.”

Campo encourages patients to write journal entries about their illnesses. And he occasionally shares his own writing with patients.

Irène Mathieu holding her fist under her chin (© Justin G. Reid)
Dr. Irène Mathieu (© Justin G. Reid)

Dr. Irène Mathieu, a pediatrician at the University of Virginia, has been writing poetry since she was a medical student. Now, through the university’s Center for Health Humanities and Ethics, she teaches medical students about the power of poetry in healing. “They’re really excited about it,” she says. “Even medical students who have no background in poetry immediately grasp it.”

For many physicians, poetry is medicine they themselves need. They explore a helplessness at the limits of their healing power and distress at witnessing so much suffering and death. Campo writes in his own poem “What I Would Give”:

What I would like to offer them is this,
not reassurance that their lungs sound fine
or that the mole they’ve noticed change is not
a melanoma, but instead of fear
transfigured by some doctorly advice,
I’d like to give them my astonishment
at seeing rainfall like the whole world weeping
and how ridiculously gently it
slicked down my hair; I’d like to give them that

“People are so busy, and we can get burnt out in our jobs,” says Mathieu, who also serves as an editor for the Journal of General Internal Medicine’s humanities section, which publishes poems. “Sometimes what people need is an injection of a sensory experience that brings them back to remembering why they’re doing this in the first place.”

Campo agrees: “Our words come from this place deep inside us that doesn’t require any formal training. This is work that comes from the heart.”

Freelance writer Linda Wang wrote this article.

An earlier version of this article was published March 17, 2020.