The Poetry of Medicine


Poetry and medicine intersect in the domain of body and speech.

The iambic lub-dub of the heartbeat, repeated five times, once for each finger of the hand, gives us the prototypic stanza of english verse, iambic pentameter

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun

I have been half in love with easeful death

Against the heartbeat play the more subtle meters of the breath, of sleep and waking, of sex, hunger, childbirth, hope and hopelessness.  The body is a fugue of interwoven rhythms.

If we translate the beautiful Latin of our clinical vocabulary, we discover cisterns in our head, boats in our wrists, vinegar cups in our hip joints.  We hear through wings and shells.  A rainbow surrounds our pupils.

Even the Alphabet seems derived from teh body.  With the Os of Ocular, Olfactory, Oral, and Otic, our senses open on the world.

In medicine, hearts gallop, murmur, burn, rub, skip, attack, fail, arrest.  In poetry, hearts ache, break, ease, rend, harden, throb.  A living metaphor sings inside our ribcage.

Poems move along our synapses, associatively. Thyroid gland, bowtie, butterfly.  Freud, one of Medicine’s great poets, knew this.

There is an ancient impulse to tell stories, to create rituals for the moments of birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, to find what is binding and universal in the isolating particulars of our experience.  In medicine, we are privileged attendants at these moments.  Moments that come to us as well.

Before the writer must come the reader, the listener, the observer.  We are immersed in the strange poetry of our patients’ histories, in the rhythms of their speech; we must fathom the significance of a hesitation, a repetition, an unexpected cadence.  We must hear the unspoken, decipher their secret code, their metaphors.  The double meaning of semiotics: relating to semantics, relating to symptomatology.  And at times we are witnesses as Language itself unravels, fails, and reveals the raw machinery of brain – aphasias, slips of the tongue, schizophrenic neologisms – unmasking hidden connections, utter disconnections, the weird contingencies of meaning, the perils of communication.  Our avant garde.


Paula Tatarunis, M.D.

Newton, Massachusetts