Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gaudeamus Igitur by John Stone

For this is the day of joy
      which has been fourteen hundred and sixty days in coming
      and fourteen hundred and fifty-nine nights
For today in the breathing name of Brahms
      and the cat of Christopher Smart
      through the unbroken line of language and all the nouns
      stored in the angular gyrus
      today is a commencing
For this is the day you know too little
      against the day when you will know too much
For you will be invincible
      and vulnerable in the same breath
      which is the breath of your patients
For their breath is our breathing and our reason
For the patient will know the answer
      and you will ask him
      ask her
For the family may know the answer
For there may be no answer
      and you will know too little again
      or there will be an answer and you will know too much
For you will look smart and feel ignorant
      and the patient will not know which day it is for you
      and you will pretend to be smart out of ignorance
For you must fear ignorance more than cyanosis
For whole days will move in the direction of rain
For you will cry and there will be no one to talk to
      or no one but yourself
For you will be lonely
For you will be alone
For there is a difference
For there is no seriousness like joy
For there is no joy like seriousness
For the days will run together in gallops and the years
      go by as fast as the speed of thought
      which is faster than the speed of light
      or Superman
      or Superwoman
For you will not be Superman
For you will not be Superwoman
For you will not be Solomon
      but you will be asked the question nevertheless *
For after you learn what to do, how and when to do it
      the question will be whether
For there will be addictions: whiskey, tobacco, love
For they will be difficult to cure
For you yourself will pass the kidney stone of pain
      and be joyful
For this is the end of examinations
For this is the beginning of testing
For Death will give the final examination
      and everyone will pass
For the sun is always right on time
      and even that may be reason for a kind of joy
For there are all kinds of
      all degrees of joy
For love is the highest joy
For which reason the best hospital is a house of joy
      even with rooms of pain and loss
      exits of misunderstanding
For there is the mortar of faith
For it helps to believe
For Mozart can heal and no one knows where he is buried
For penicillin can heal
      and the word
      and the knife
For the placebo will work and you will think you know why
For the placebo will have side effects and you will know
      you do not know why
For none of these may heal
For joy is nothing if not mysterious
For your patients will test you for spleen
      and for the four humors
For they will know the answer
For they have the disease
For disease will peer up over the hedge
      of health, with only its eyes showing
For the T waves will be peaked and you will not know why
For there will be computers
For there will be hard data and they will be hard
      to understand
For the trivial will trap you and the important escape you
For the Committee will be unable to resolve the question
For there will be the arts
      and some will call them
      soft data
      whereas in fact they are the hard data
      by which our lives are lived
For everyone comes to the arts too late
For you can be trained to listen only for the oboe
      out of the whole orchestra
For you may need to strain to hear the voice of the patient
      in the thin reed of his crying
For you will learn to see most acutely out of
      the corner of your eye
      to hear best with your inner ear
For there are late signs and early signs
For the patient's story will come to you
      like hunger, like thirst
For you will know the answer
      like second nature, like first
For the patient will live
      and you will try to understand
For you will be amazed
      or the patient will not live
      and you will try to understand
For you will be baffled
For you will try to explain both, either, to the family
For there will be laying on of hands
      and the letting go
For love is what death would always intend if it had the choice
For the fever will drop, the bone remold along
its lines of force
      the speech return
      the mind remember itself
For there will be days of joy
For there will be elevators of elation
      and you will walk triumphantly
      in purest joy
      along the halls of the hospital
      and say Yes to all the dark corners
      where no one is listening
For the heart will lead
For the head will explain
      but the final common pathway is the heart
      whatever kingdom may come
For what matters finally is how the human spirit is spent
For this is the day of joy
For this is the morning to rejoice
For this is the beginning
      Therefore, let us rejoice
      Gaudeamus igitur.

 *1 Kings 3:16-27

Published on Tuesday Poem with permission of John Stone’s widow, Mae Nelson Stone. Gaudeamus Igitur appeared in his last book of poems, "Music from Apartment 8: New and Selected Poems" published in 2004 by LSU Press.

                                                                   Editor, Renee Liang

I first came across this thought-provoking poem when an extract was read at a gathering of doctors, before finding it again on Nancy Simpson’s informative blog. When I found that its author, John Stone, came (like me) from the dual worlds of poetry and medicine, I was hooked. I started tracking down his books.

Reading and hearing this poem, written for the 1982 commencement ceremony of Emory University’s School of Medicine, I have little explosions of recognition.  At the time I graduated from medical school, I wouldn’t have understood lines like “For whole days will move in the direction of rain” and “For joy is nothing if not mysterious.”  But now I do. 

John Stone understood the closeness of medicine to poetry. He uses poetry to express the world of the doctor – an uncertain human being, called to show certainty and strength to the sick. One of the hardest – and easiest -- things about becoming a doctor is learning to doubt yourself. Experienced clinicians will say that doubt is often what saves them.  To the young, it’s the thing they most want to avoid.

This is where learning in the arts helps me.  In the arts, I think, we often work by instinct – moving in a direction that feels right. Of course we take care to do our research and hone our technical skills – but how often have we found a solution by ‘feel’? I think this is what Stone means when he writes,

For you can be trained to listen only for the oboe
      out of the whole orchestra

- there’s an instinct which can be honed, not through textbooks, but only through experience. There’s always that doubt – will we find anything to ‘hear’ at all? - but we keep going anyway.  And when we find it, there’s often still that ambivalence of meaning, the same ambivalence that brings us so much pleasure in reading and writing poetry.  Doubt can be a strength, after all.

John Stone (1936-2008), physician-poet, was an emeritus professor of medicine in cardiology at Emory University.  He also taught English Literature and Medicine at Emory and at Oxford University, England. He won numerous awards in both medicine and poetry.

Stone’s poetry collections include The Smell of Matches (1972), In All This Rain (1980), Renaming the Streets (1985), Where Water Begins: New Poems and Prose (1998), and Music From Apartment 8: New and Selected Poems (2004). In 1990 Dell published In the Country of Hearts: Journeys in the Art of Medicine, a collection of essays about the human heart, both as a physiological organ and a metaphorical symbol of life and emotion.
This week's Tuesday Poem editor Renee Liang is an Auckland poet, playwright and paediatrician. She writes and tours plays, with 'The First Asian AB' performed in Hamilton this year. Her poetry and other writing can be found on her blog Chinglish

After you've read this post, check out the poems in the sidebar from the 30 Tuesday Poets who post poems by themselves or others they admire every Tuesday.  


Kathleen Jones said...

This is utterly brilliant! thank you renee.

Anonymous said...

Insightful, interesting commentary Renee - thanks for posting the poem.

Michelle Elvy said...

Thank you so much for the poem and the discussion, which shed so much light on this connection between medicine and poetry. Very interesting indeed.

Helen McKinlay said...

I have read this a few times now. I love its wisdom and would like to have have had these answers when I was working as a nurse/midwife.
Thankyou for your comments as well.

Rathnashikamani said...

Excellent expressions!