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Poetry can save lives!

Julia Darling passionately believed that ‘poetry should be part of every modern hospital’. She felt that the language of poetry could confront the language of pain, not just for poets but everyone. Writing in her introduction to the anthology The Poetry Cure, Julia noted: ‘It’s a powerful force, which can help us through the darkest times. I would like to see more poets in residence in the health system, more poetry books in waiting rooms, more poems on the walls, more training in creative writing for doctors, and more poems printed on primary care leaflets.’

As a poetry practitioner Julia felt that we can develop our own vocabularies for pain, enabling us to communicate better how we feel as well as empowering us through using our own words. She expressed how finding the right ‘metaphor for pain’ can help you feel in control of your disease. This was a two-way process, as she believed that health practitioners could benefit from thinking creatively about communication with their patients. The mystifying and alienating language used by doctors could be replaced by images and metaphors we are all able understand. In her introduction to the collection Indelible, Miraculous, Jackie Kay writes: ‘Julia wanted to use poetry as a medium to help face illness and death and bereavement, to change the way that hospital systems and doctors deal with their patients, to break the mould, to change the vocabulary.’

Her work was inspirational in breaking down barriers between doctors and patients, and she ran uplifting workshops for students, academics, writers and medical staff. In these sessions, everyone involved was encouraged to look at the human body as an inspiration for writing and to use medical vocabulary in unusual ways. Interviewed in 2004 by the BBC for an Inside Out documentary about her experience of running workshops, Julia commented: ‘I love the atmosphere in a room when a group of people are working on the making of a poem. It has a lovely, honey calmness about it. Writers can take their scribblings, diaries and notes and develop these into a poetic shape.’ Also interviewed for Inside Out, Dr Dominic Slowie, with whom Julia established Operating Theatre said: ‘Doctors are always looking at ways of improving the understanding of their patients. I think that this creative process allows you to safely step into somebody’s shoes and experience their world.’

Over the course of ten years’ treatment for cancer, Julia explored her body and her experience of the health service in her poetry, radio and stage plays, blog and final unpublished novel. Julia observed in The Poetry Cure: ‘I think one of the hardest things about being unwell is feeling disempowered and out of control. Writing poetry can make you feel in charge again… Waiting “patiently” for an appointment can make you feel hopeless and helpless, and I found that doing some absorbing activity in the waiting room completely altered the experience.’

Julia often felt vulnerable and weak in the ‘surreal environment’ of the hospital and her writing was her own ‘cure’. She observed: ‘Poetry is all about music and rhythm, and music comforts and lulls us. The process of writing poetry can be described as a way of bringing different parts of someone together, of literally creating harmony.’

Julia’s collections of poetry Sudden Collapses in Public Places and Apology for Absence explored her own relationship with breast cancer but are also beacons of hope for those in a similar situation, who find themselves waiting for appointments. Writing for The Poetry Book Society Bulletin published in autumn 2003, she explained:  ‘I was seeing a healer, thinking about death, going on holidays, having facials, worrying, getting my teeth filled, talking to doctors, talking to patients, and other poets. I wrote poetry in waiting rooms. I made up poems while I was having scans. Somehow this was defiant and empowering. I forgot to be a patient. I was so absorbed in another world.’ In her other world she often used the metaphor of her body as a building, which she could explore, adjust and scaffold. She continued: ‘You can move out of a house if you like, you can rebuild it, or you can let it fall to rack and ruin around you…Through my window I can see the Royal Victoria Infirmary where I go and see my Doctor to discuss my cancer…Around us they are always rebuilding parts of the hospital and there is a constant hum of diggers and cranes at work. The hospital itself is like a damaged body, full of scars and amputations.’

The poem ‘Sudden Collapses in Public Places’ opens:

like buildings, people can disintegrate
collapse in queues, or in a crowded street

causing mayhem, giving kids bad dreams
of awkward corpses, policemen, drops of blood

Humour was always crucial to Julia’s writing on health and in her blog she personified cancer in November 2002 as ‘an incompetent kind of disease, that sometimes manages to rally a weak drunken army and attempts to make an attack somewhere in my body. However, most of the time it lies about in a dirty heap snoring.’ Another entry (May 2004) challenges the way we view disease as taking control of our physical selves. For Julia the reverse could be true as she ‘tiptoed’ around her body attempting to outwit her physical self: ‘You want to trick cancer by not behaving like a patient.’

Julia’s blog made her visible online and she believed that the world of illness should be as visible as the world of health, particularly by engaging creativity and positivity. Her friend Robyn Hitchcock’s song ‘I’m Falling’ includes the lyric, ‘There’s a thin line between being well and being ill,’ and Julia was aware that anyone could cross the line in an instant.

Rather than feeling disempowered both physically and by being treated as a ‘patient’, Julia believed that we can find common ground with those around us. Her poem ‘How to Behave with the Ill’ challenges the fears surrounding disease.

Approach us assertively, try not to
cringe or sidle, it makes us fearful
Rather walk straight up and smile…
Remember that this day might be your last
and that it is a miracle that any of us
stands up, breathes, behaves at all.

Writing for Indelible, Miraculous, Jackie Kay mentioned an event at which Julia read this poem to an audience. ‘She had a witty way with the crowd and she put people at ease. No one needed to feel uncomfortable because hers was an honestly that was gentle and delicate as well as bold and brazen.’

Julia felt that straight-talking, optimism and hope could be injected not just into poetry but also into the hospital information sheets she was given to read, particularly about different drug options. ‘Not one of them says anything good about any of the treatments,’ Julia wrote in March 2004.‘There is an awful lack of HOPE about all of it.’ Ever practical, Julia initiated the ‘waiting room’ project, selecting poems and excerpts of prose suitable for display in the ‘miserable places in hospitals’: the waiting rooms, toilets, cubicles and isolation units. Her idea came to fruition in The Rebellious Stamp exhibition, which toured waiting rooms around the country with 16 paintings and poems following her death. She aimed to take the misery out of hospitals and on a personal level she wanted, ‘my doctors to congratulate me, to tell me the best things that can happen, not just the worst!’

Julia hoped the poetry anthology she edited with the poet Cynthia Fuller, The Poetry Cure, would be a guide to taking responsibility, in addition to providing ‘comfort and inspiration.’ She thought the book should be found on the bedside tables of GPs in addition to being available in every hospital waiting room. As Julia observed in February 2004, ‘writing poetry or song is the best medicine I know’. And as she wrote for The Poetry Society Bulletin: ‘Writing poetry was very invigorating, especially as I had time to work o the poems, so they weren’t just outpourings of anxiety. I didn’t see them as therapy, more as doors into other universes.’

In 2015 Arc published Indelible, Miraculous: The collected poems of Julia Darling which includes First Aid Kit for the Mind, early published work and uncollected poems. Jackie Kay wrote of the collection: ‘There’s a great wisdom to be found in the work of Julia Darling. There’s common sense advice on how to behave with the very ill, on how to appreciate and live in the moment, in how not to waste time worrying, how to take delight in the simplest of things, how to live your life with as much unexpected elegance as you can muster, how to be defiant and yet glamorous.’

Read the poem How to Behave with the Ill →

How to Behave With The Ill

Approach us assertively, try not to
cringe or sidle, it makes us fearful.
Rather walk straight up and smile.
Do not touch us unless invited,
particularly don’t squeeze upper arms,
or try to hold our hands. Keep your head erect.
Don’t bend down, or lower your voice.
Speak evenly. Don’t say
‘How are you?’ in an underlined voice.
Don’t say, I heard that you were very ill.
This makes the poorly paranoid.
Be direct, say ‘How’s your cancer?’
Try not to say how well we look.
compared to when you met in Safeway’s.
Please don’t cry, or get emotional,
and say how dreadful it all is.
Also (and this is hard I know)
try not to ignore the ill, or to scurry
past, muttering about a bus, the bank.
Remember that this day might be your last
and that it is a miracle that any of us
stands up, breathes, behaves at all.

Copyright Tamzin Mackie