To begin my twentieth year teaching literature at Trinity College School of Medicine, and as I usually do to bring them rapidly and suddenly out of their more textbook-, fact- and learning- based world, I read a poem.
I first asked them to call to mind someone in particular they don’t like, someone who bothers them intensely, someone they would dread spending a long bus journey sitting beside, and then to give them the name Paudeen.
And I read Yeats’ poem ‘Paudeen’ to them.
Indignant at the fumbling wits, the obscure spite
Of our old Paudeen in his shop, I stumbled blind
Among the stones and thorn-trees, under morning light;
Until a curlew cried and in the luminous wind
A curlew answered; and suddenly thereupon I thought
That on a lonely height where all are in God’s eye,
There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.
And I read it again.
And I read it again, explaining that when we meet someone for the first time, as they were meeting me, we are often distracted by a variety of observations we make about them from what they are actually saying; I gave them the example of how we often forget someone’s name when they first introduce themselves to us; I said we’d be reading each of the poems we encounter a number of times!
Then I told them I was going to ask them to do something they may never have done before or not done in a very long time: a dictation. I got them to write out the poem word for word as I read it to them again, explaining first that I hoped it would help them become more familiar with how the poem is put together.
Then I told them I was going to ask them to another thing they may never have done before or not done in a very long time: a group reading. I got them to join me in reading the poem aloud all together. And then we did it again, and as we did I freed my vocal presentation even more and injected a bigger dose of emotional charge into it, by way of demonstration, by way of making sonic room for them to do the same, and by way of making them more aware that this was an informal, liberal arts environment!
And I think at least some of them felt the charge, and I discussed the power of art with them a little, comparing what we just did to singing in the shower or dancing in the dark etc. Poetry may be quieter but it can be extremely powerful in its own way, and it finds its place, especially when we open ourselves up to it.
I then went through the poem with them line by line and discussed various aspects of it, by way of illustrating close reading and starting to get them comfortable with personal perspectives and different interpretations. I paused every now and again to invite them to offer their own thoughts, but didn’t put any pressure on them to contribute at this early stage.
I also hinted at why this poem might prove beneficial to them to have in reserve when they eventually become doctors! We’ll recite it every week together.
So, that was all by way of presenting one aspect of the module: literature.
To present the other aspect of the module, namely medicine, I turned to non-fiction prose (as close to science as we get!) and read some extracts from a number of columns by a columnist whom I can’t bring myself to mention here but who wrote well and humorously about doctors many years ago, to wit:
“Medical students are put through a hell which is the very opposite of education. Far from their minds being opened, being prompted to engage distant and different horizons, far from their time at university being one of mental liberation and personal discovery, medical students find themselves being funnelled into a witless, brain-sterilising marathon of fact-retention.
The very first task of medical school is the conversion of the brain from a vital ratiocinative organ for analytical thought and speculation into a machine for storing facts – in other words, a cerebral shoebox containing a vast anatomical index, in which you can find the name of every nerve-ending and every follicle, and also, in an unswept and unvisited corner, a small, withering organ called common humanity.
This is not the fault of the students. It is almost impossible for the spirit of ordinary sensitivity, of optimistic enquiry, of normal ignorant speculation working its way to enlightened conclusion, to survive the Gradgrindery of medical training. Medical students probably work five or ten times harder than art students; and correspondingly, they discover five or ten times less about human nature. That discovery is made in casual college discourse, in unstructured debate, in wide and varied and undisciplined reading. It is the very purposelessness of the liberal arts which give them purpose.”
This allowed me to ad lib on the perceived differences between the liberal arts and sciences, but in a very balanced way, emphasising that medical students indulged in plenty of casual discourse and arts students spent a lot of time reading dull books. It also allowed me to talk about the overall thinking behind humanities modules for medical students.
And so on to the main course:
Lucy Caldwell‘s eponymous story from her short story collection ‘Multitudes‘*. I read out loud this powerful story set in a paediatric ward, line by line, observation by observation, episode by episode; pausing regularly to comment or invite observations – personal and / or interpretative.
The consultant mentioned on the first page allowed me to invite one of the group to pose the well known riddle about the father and son who are in a car accident and rushed to hospital for emergency treatment, but the surgeon announces “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son”. (Until it’s no longer a riddle, what have we got? _________.**) I even gave the briefest summary of deconstructionism!
(The mention of Susan Sontag’s idea of a kingdom of the well and a kingdom of the sick prompted me to read as an aside Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘Someone’.)
We also discussed things like how patients & staff experience things very differently; how artificial and therefore challenging the atmosphere in hospitals is for patients (… and staff!); how othering illness is; how the powers of observation/description many writers exhibit (especially Caldwell here, for instance when her narrator is describing her efforts to breast feed / ‘nurse’ her sick child), how the detail of these observations would be expected of the best doctors when it comes to understanding patients and making diagnoses. (Needless to say, they don’t need to put in writing the observations as well as Caldwell does; though I did mention how many doctors were also good/great writers.)
Finally, we discussed how literally we ought to take a narrator of a story, or how believable every detail of a story is; could particular things “actually happen” to the narrator as described, or could they be taking poetic licence or using magic realism techniques to convey a truth other than the observable truth?
“I sing over the noise of the machines and I sing myself into a sort of doze. Sometimes I try to sing alternative endings for the soldiers … Sometimes I try to sing other songs …”
We ran out of time at that stage, which is a good thing, as hopefully they’ll want to go off and read the rest of the story for themselves now.
*Also available in ‘The Long Gaze Back: an anthology of Irish Women Writers’ edited by Sinéad Gleeson.
**I should say that apart from those who knew the riddle already, no one else in the group of ten got it, male or female. This despite the mention of the consultant being the prompt to put the riddle!