How Poetry Can Teach Us to Carry Forward

Divya K. Chhabra (MD)
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow Columbia, Cornell
Chief Medical Officer, Butterfly Health
Freelance Writer

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In 2020 a projected 59 million people died around the world—almost 2 million of whom died from COVID-19. Just halfway into 2021, the worldwide death toll from COVID has already surpassed that of 2020.

At the same time, since the pandemic began a projected 175 million newborn babies have opened their eyes to this very world for the first time. That’s a symbol of hope in a future where a virus does not steal from us the small moments that we carefully yet serendipitously craft our lives around: a father and daughter tearing up as they walk down the aisle, the feeling of crème brûlée flirting with a sweet-craving tongue and friendships where silent exchanges result in unrelenting belly laughs. It’s a future where a virus does not mingle with centuries of manmade systemic racism to deny Black and brown people these same simple pleasures and joy.

In order to transform this hope into a future that dismantles, rebuilds and nourishes life, living and aliveness equitably—for all of us—we must carry on and carry forward. The complicated answers to how and what we carry forward hide somewhere between the individual and the collective, capitalism and humanity, change and stagnation, comfort and terror, humility and narcissism, the self, the other, and surrender and control—that is, in the depths of what we can learn from poetry.

Learning From Our Ancestors

T.S. Eliot once said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” We cannot move forward without understanding our past, whether this means correcting and atoning for wrongdoings, dismantling unjust systems or exploring the intricacies of what exists and changing these ideas for the better. Reinventing is vital, yet, untouched in the cracks and crevices of our past we may find keys to the future.

In poetry, classic poems are often rewritten—with outdated, even problematic words or ideas removed and with the useful scraps and ideas recycled, so that they emerge new and improved. By revisiting the knowledge of our ancestors—whether through our families, indigenous wisdom, animals or the living world around us—we can ethically “steal” murky, maybe seemingly unrelatable ideas and use them to combat racism in medicine.

Negative Capability

Negative capability, initially described by John Keats in 1817, celebrates uncertainty—a feeling that for most (and especially in medicine) drenches us in fear. But Keats argues that this very uncertainty allows poets to plumb new depths and reach new heights of artistic beauty beyond that possible through logic and reasoning. Later, Wilfred Bion, a well-known psychoanalyst, expounded on negative capability, noting that it requires a level of openness and tolerance to uncomfortableness. It also requires acknowledgment of our lack of omnipotence, which facilitates not over-imposing simple ideas on complex problems.

In medicine algorithms are our deities, and grey areas point to fight or flight. But when it comes to both nuanced and very ingrained racism in medicine, algorithms and black and white solutions will not help. We must carry forward the ability to gravitate toward the unknown, embrace fear, foster curiosity and reflect before we act. Complex problems deserve complex solutions—but this cannot happen overnight.  

Culture is not a Deficit

From the Japanese haiku to the English sonnet to the Arabic ghazal, poetry—like emotion—has always reached us to our core as humans. And although the arts, like every industry, are built on a foundation of white supremacy, it’s clear that a good poem embraces culture and differences.

In medicine culture is frequently taught as something to beware of since, ostensibly, it may cause someone to distrust you or not take their medications, drink excessively or say no to procedures. And while some of these factors are important to be aware of, lessons on culture as an asset rather than a deficit—on how we can actually utilize identity and difference to practice better medicine—are few and far between.

Art can take us beyond our limits. It represents the purest form of social justice. So when we see hope in the eyes and the cries of millions of newborns every day yet feel paralyzed by terror of the world they are entering, let’s think of what poetry teaches us. Let’s learn from it and refocus our lens to celebrate culture, framing it as a way to search for solutions rather than as the source of the problems.