Madeleine Mysko, RN, MA
WHEN THE POET HAPPENS TO BE A NURSE
At social functions, when someone asks me what I do for a living, I answer that I'm a nurse, and that I also write poetry. As a rule, the conversation then turns down the path I've taken as poet. Few people ask about the nursing (unless of course they happen to be nurses too). Few are curious about the connection between nursing and poetry.
Perhaps because of the order in which I name the two paths--nursing, followed by an "also"--people tend to draw the romantic conclusion that at some point in my nursing career I felt the call to be creative, and thus I write in my spare time for the sake of my poetic soul. Perhaps it is I who have led them to that conclusion, for I'm given to remarking wryly that no one really makes a living writing poems, but one can at least pay the bills by working as a nurse. No wonder then that I'm perceived as a nurse who happens to write poems.
But in truth I'm a poet who happens to be a nurse. (I also write fiction, but then that's another story, no pun intended.)
I suppose it could be said that a nurse who writes serious poetry is not unlike anyone else who writes serious poetry while also holding down a job outside the halls of academia (Academia being the only place where a regular, working poet might be able to make living as poet.) Dana Gioia devotes a chapter of Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture to a discussion of American poets who happen to have made a living in business, ultimately making the case that these poets did not "simplify themselves into the conventional image of poet." (139) Gioia points out that he chose this particular group--poets who have at one time or another in their lives worked as insurance salesmen or bankers or investment brokers--because it serves the purposes of his wider argument as "one of the more extreme and paradoxical examples of the alienated modern artist." (133)
Is the poet who works in a hospital, tending to the sick, any different from the poet who works in an office building selling insurance? Maybe not, since both these poets work at "regular" jobs for a paycheck in order to work in the off hours towards the same goal--a well-crafted poem. But to me the more interesting question is this: All things being equal (that is, we're talking about serious poetry that merits the consideration of both the literary critic and the lover of poetry) what is it about the body of work written by nurses--as a distinct group--that is worth our attention?
Gioia poses the same question about businessman-poets (all the poets he discusses in that particular chapter are men)--"Is anything even gained by segregating them as a distinct group of writers and comparing them to other poets whose lives seem more typical?" Obviously, given the depth of his own thinking on the subject, Gioia has concluded that there is indeed something to be gained. I agree, if only for the pleasure of digging past the intriguing question and into the poetry itself. But then Gioia goes off on in other directions (money and wealth as ancient subjects, for example) that may not be as useful to this discussion.
One of Gioia's questions, however, went off in such a direction as to give me pause: "Why did these men write nothing about their working lives?" Clearly, one would never ask that question about the "distinct group of writers" who are nurses, for the obvious reason that when nurses write poems, they quite often are writing about their working lives, with all the poetic energy it takes to address what they know firsthand of illness, birth, dying and death, suffering and healing. One could argue that a great many poems in the English and American tradition address these very same subjects. Still, there is no denying that the majority of poems written by nurses--at least those specifically identified and anthologized as such--are uniquely set in the working life of the nurse, a working life that requires an intimacy with human suffering the likes of which no other profession requires. Poems written by nurses are more likely to be narrative, to appeal to the senses, to be attentive to the human body in ways that are knowing, and authoritative. It seems to me this is only natural, given the sort of experience a nurse naturally draws from.
I dare say that most of the poets represented in what Cortney Davis calls a "small revolution in nurses' writing" did not take offense when Davis and her co-editor Judy Schaefer (both of them nurses, both poets) gathered them together under one title--Nurses--and published their poems in an anthology. (There are now two such anthologies.) The members of that small revolution owe a dept of gratitude for the passionate efforts of these anthologists, and for the outreach of editors like Danielle Ofri of Bellevue Literary Review. Were it not for the distinct grouping--for the category of "literary nurse"--some of these poets might never have received the notice they are due.
That said, I am still a poet who happens to be a nurse. The distinction is important to me because I resist the suggestion that any subject matter--in my case, the working life of a nurse--is of primary importance in recommending a body of work to a reader. Some poets are nurses, and others are insurance salesmen and, yes, a lot of them are academics, but regardless of how they make a living, the best of these strive to perfect their art. Confined by the topics relating to a particular profession, how can any poet grow as an artist?
In her foreword to Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses, Joanne Trautmann Banks writes that she'd like to remove the hyphen from the term "nurse-writers." She concludes with an imperative: "Call them simply writers who happen to have unusual access to us." (xiv) I think Banks has it right. In reading the poems in this tribute issue, it is worth considering the import of that "unusual access."
By virtue of the profession, nurses have physical access to us: They are present at moments of human vulnerability. At the same time, the work that nurses do--often so close to our pain as to breathe the very air of it--demands a discipline that limits access to emotion. Good nurses keep a check on the feelings--fear, revulsion, anger, grief--that might compromise what they have to offer as professionals. Even at the joyful occasions, childbirth for example, nurses know they aren't entirely free to indulge in emotion. On the one hand they must be empathetic and engaged, but on the other hand they must be removed and clear-headed. Thus, at the end of workday, a nurse's approach to writing a poem isn't exactly like Wordsworth's emotion recollected in tranquility. The nurse's approach might be described as professional barriers to emotion dismantled out of poetic necessity. My phrasing isn't as euphonious as Wordsworth's, but it's the best I can do, and I believe it's true.
This is not to say that nurses write poems to let off the steam of pent-up feeling. It is to say that their approach to poems (even those poems addressing subjects outside the nursing workday--sea turtles and street cellists and the Day of the Dead, for example) is by way of a privileged and precarious access to human experience. Rather than merely reporting from the bedside, rather than aiming for sensation or sentiment, good poets who happen to be nurses work hard at the craft. As a distinct group, it is true they have an unusual access to us. But it's important to note that this access is not easy, and that each poet in the distinct group presented here has approached it deliberately. Each one has mustered up the discipline it takes to make something beautiful out of what a nurse knows.
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Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Graywolf, 1992).
Davis, Cortney and Judy Schaefer. Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses (University of Iowa Press, 1995).
Davis, Cortney and Judy Schaefer. Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses ( University of Iowa Press, 2003).