Poetry in Medicine:Inventory of the Everyday Miraculous
By Daniel J Bressler, MD, FACP
Published in San Diego Physician, May 2002
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
Walt Whitman, the great 19th century American poet, reminds us to look for the everyday miraculous. Whitman, among other experiences, worked as a Union medic during the Civil War and as such experienced at close hand the horrors of disease and pain in that era before effective antisepsis and analgesia. Despite (and perhaps because) of this dark knowledge, he writes passionately of the availability of wonder in the poem, “Miracles” from his collection Leaves of Grass:
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with the one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim–the rocks–the motion of the waves–the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
Like many poets, Whitman often turned to nature (the sea, the beehive, the slivered moon) as wordless instructors of the presence of a beauty and joy that somehow defy logic in their overabundance. It is with a similar sense of nature providing a deeper common sense than “book learning” that Bertrand Russell, the 20th century philosopher commented,“I’ve made an odd discovery. Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk with my gardener, I’m convinced of the opposite.”
Gerald Manley Hopkins, a 19th century poet also looked to nature as a book of miracles in his “Pied Beauty,” which stands as a masterpiece of painting with words. Hopkins, a Catholic priest, inventories the beauty of the world as a form of passionate prayer. Read this poem aloud to capture more of its power and inventiveness. (By the way, “pied” means “of blotchy, mixed colors.”)
Glory be to God for dappled things,
For skies of couple-color as a brindled cow,
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plough,
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange,
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
The poet, with the mystic, instructs us that the miracles are here, all around us. The fact that they aren’t readily apparent to us is a reflection of our poorly developed senses and our constant distractions. My claim here isn’t that we would all be better off dropping our stethoscopes and scalpels, discarding our shoes and spending all our days bedazzled by the sunlight playing off the waters at Torrey Pines beach; rather, the poets can remind us that the efficient cardiac cycle includes both functional systole AND functional diastole. Poetry, through its own beauty and through its invitation to open our senses and expand our sensibilities, can help us balance the productive “systole” of medical practice with the receptive “diastole” of the everyday miraculous.