I don’t know who it was that said poetry is defined as a language writing itself out of a difficult situation. What I know is illness is one of those situations.
I often turn to poetry in search of a prompt to help patients put words to their experience and, perhaps, view their circumstances through a different lens. Raymond Carver, a patient himself, did just that in his poem “Late Fragment.”
“And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved,
To feel myself beloved on earth.”
During my tenure as a medical humanist at a cancer center in Vermont I facilitated a program, which,I titled, as “Writing is Good Medicine™”. For one of the exercises I prescribed Carver’s poem. Patients were instructed to begin with the words: “When I read the Late Fragment poem…” and write the first thought that would came to mind and follow that thought—albeit a sentence, paragraph, a page or more.
One patient immediately comes to mind…
“When I read the ‘Late Fragment’ poem,” she wrote, “I puzzled over the words ‘Even so…’
I wondered what that meant within the context of the words given.
I puzzled even more about the question
‘Did I get what I wanted from this life?
‘even so’ was the easier of the two questions…’
“To call myself beloved…to feel myself beloved on this earth…”
Both questions answered.
The “even so “phrase makes terrific sense to the indescribable joy one finds
in the ordinary of life…
To call myself beloved…to feel beloved on this earth…
I would not have known these words to say…
and yet they have crept into my heart.
When I thought about getting what I wanted from this life…
I’ve not thought of it that way…I didn’t make a list and go after things.
I lacked the wisdom to identify in large ways what my heart yearned for.
Only lately have I begun to know in a clearer way what
I have been looking for all of my life…
To call myself beloved…to find at last a true love for myself…
to love all of myself gently amid success and failure.
To feel myself beloved on this earth…Who would not find pure joy
in this…are not all other joys made small by comparison
and other substitutes unmasked as counterfeit.
I am glad this poem was given to me…I’m glad it began to live and breathe for me.
A bit of sadness touches the corner of my eyes…
I want more time for living even as poorly as I do sometimes.
I want more time for doing it.
I have felt beloved on this earth…
so sweet the sound and feel…
moments one would wish would last and last…but I have known its touch.”
Not only did she embrace the lived experience of illness in a way that comforted her and those she loved-it proved to be a teaching moment for her healthcare team.
As for me, it not only confirmed that “writing is good medicine” but served as the wellspring for creating the Difficult Conversations Workbook.