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Simone's OncOpinion

Physicians and Poetry

Simone, Joseph V. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000475729.28224.7b
Opinion
Free

Among the various professions, physicians in particular seem to like reading poetry, though not necessarily to write it (although plenty of them have contributed to OT's “Poetry by Cancer Caregivers” department).

A long-time colleague of mine, Dr. Fritz Lampert, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist based in Germany, visited St. Jude in the early days of our success in treating childhood leukemia. We became friends and have stayed in touch since the early 1970s. He also has a remarkable record of treating children with cancer in underserved populations around the globe.

In the mid 1990s, Fritz wrote to me and other colleagues he had been in contact with over the years describing a plan: He proposed to collect handwritten versions of poems—two from each of us—that were among our favorites. The plan was to collect them into a book that included the typed text in six languages—English, German, Italian, Russian, French and Spanish—as well as the handwritten versions. The 5×8 inch book is entitled Poems of World Literature Handwritten. It has 240 pages, a hard cover, and was printed in Giessen, Germany (ISBN 3-00-001100-5).

Surprisingly or not, most of the poems chosen are mainly on serious and sometimes mysterious subjects, such as mortality, spiritual thoughts, and nature. There were none on the medical profession.

The book, as you might expect, was not easy to put together; he worked with several translators, and I imagine that collecting legible handwritten text from doctors must have been a challenge. But he succeeded marvelously. The book has 81 poems, and I have chosen a representative sample of eight below, which are reprinted with permission:

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A Word by Gottfried Benn (1886-1956), chosen by Prof. Harald zur Hausen

A word, a phrase—

from letters rise

Discerned life, sudden sense,

The sun stands still, the spheres

are silent,

The concentration is intense.

A word-, a gleam, a flight, a fire,

a flaming torch, a shooting star-,

And dark again, awe-inspiring,

In empty space around the world

and I.

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The Inferno Canto V by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), chosen by Dr. Luisa Massimo

Love, which is fast experienced by the noble heart,

Took him by the beauty of the person,

Taken away from me, in a manner still offending me.

Love, which does not forgive a loved-one not to love,

Took me with such strong pleasure towards him,

That, as you see, it still has not abandoned me.

Love leads us both to one single death:

Caina waits for the one who will take our lives.

These words, given to them, came to us with

charming sound.

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Dust of Snow by Robert Frost (1875-1963), chosen by Melissa D. Halsey

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

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The Prophet: On Children by Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), chosen by Ursula von Bayern

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to

make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

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The Definitive Journey by Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958), chosen by Chaya Losada Gobantes

... And I shall go. And the birds shall stay,

singing;

and there will be my little garden, with its green tree,

and with its white well.

Every afternoon the sky will be blue

and peaceful;

and the bells of the bell tower will toll

as they are tolling this afternoon.

Those who have loved me will be dead;

and the village will be new again every year;

and in the corner of my flowering garden,

chalky white,

my soul will wander full of nostalgia...

And I shall go; and will be alone, without a

home, without a green tree, without a

white well,

without a blue and peaceful sky...

And the birds shall stay, singing.

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The Infinite by Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), chosen by Dr. Giuseppe Masera

This lonely hill has always been

dear to me

and this hedgerow that hides from view

so large a part of the most distant horizon.

But as I sit and gaze, my thoughts conceive

interminable spaces lying beyond

and supernatural silences,

and proundest calm, and about

Little things

my heart will not be frightened.

And hearing the wind come rustling through

these bushes

I find myself comparing to this voice

that infinite silence; and I recall eternity

and all the ages that are dead

and the living present and its sounds.

And hence

in this immensity my thought is drowned:

and to be shipwrecked in this sea

is sweet to me.

And here are the two that I chose:

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For Whom the Bell Tolls by John Donne (1572-1631)

No man is an island, entire of itself;

everyman is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less, as well as if a manor

of the friend's or thine own were:

Any man's death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind,

and therefore never to know

for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

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Question and Answer in the Mountains by Li Taibo (701-762)

Ask me

Why I stay

On Green Mountain?

I smile

And do not answer,

My heart is at ease.

Peach blossoms

On flowing water

Slip away

Into the distance—

This is another world

Which is not of men.

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