Johanna Emeney. The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and the Medical Humanities. Stuttgart: ibidem Press, 2018. 263 pp. $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8382-1128-2.
Reviewed by Andy C. Brown (University of Exeter)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (August, 2018)
Commissioned by Darren N. Wagner (Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin)
Johanna Emeney’s work on medical poetry begins by charting the rise of the medical humanities in the United States and United Kingdom before showing its development in other nations, particularly New Zealand. This comparison offers a clear justification for why New Zealand has such a strong medical humanities culture and many notable medical poets. Emeney’s introduction offers a thorough international survey of prizes for medical poetry and key medical poetry annual conferences; a history of confessional poetry and its relationship to autobiographical poetry; a survey of the main clinical courses in the USA, UK, and New Zealand that include humanities education within their curricula; and summaries of influential poet-doctors through history and major anthologies and individual poet’s collections in the field. In so doing, it offers a comprehensive overview of the field that scholars and students alike will find extremely useful.
Much of Emeney’s discussion stems from her taking to task the many negative reviews that have been published against autobiographical confessional poets, and the negative connotations that have accompanied “confessionalism” from the early 1960s onwards. Most of these negative reviews can be summarized with the populist dismissal of “content trumping style” or, in other words, that autobiographical medical poetry simply emotes at the expense of craft. Emeney’s detailed, humane, and insightful close readings of her chosen poets go a long way in dismantling such negative reviews, and reveal not only the technical features of these poems, but their wider societal ambitions and underlying humanity. As Emeney writes: “This is overtly the work of the lyric poem: attention is drawn to the universalization of the personal” (p. 120).
Engaging with Mikhail Bhaktin’s theories of “heteroglossia” (hierarchical interactions of languages and discourses within a text) and Foucauldian notions of the power relations inherent in clinical language, Emeney also employs interview material from her chosen poets and excerpts from essays and articles that they have written for medical journals and/or presented at medical humanities conferences. Her first chapter’s subjects are a select group of “Doctor Poets”—Dannie Abse, and Rafael Campo whose work builds on his experience of the HIV/AIDS epidemic—and two poets whose work engages with “children and parents,” notably Sharon Olds and Philip Gross. These detailed close readings lay the foundations for Emeney’s later discussions of New Zealand’s medical poets.
The second chapter offers detailed close readings of three of New Zealand’s doctor-poets: Glen Colquhoun, Angela Andrews, and Rae Varcoe. Here Emeney further explores how the personal narrative language of the patient interfaces with the seemingly objective and authoritative language of the doctor as sometimes competing and, at other times, complementary discourses. The close reading also explores how these poets treat the relationships between clinical discourse and religion, and the ways in which medical knowledge and training interact with personal and familial narratives. This line of inquiry is what Emeney repeatedly calls “the balancing of biomedical and lifeworld discourses” (p. 133) that comes out of the “collision of conflicting discourses” (p. 111). As the carefully chosen word “balancing” suggests, it is simultaneously the poet’s, the doctor’s, and the patient’s shared humanity that rescues the “collision” from the potentially dehumanizing effects of medicine.
Other eminent poets from New Zealand are explored in the third chapter (C. K. Stead, Jenny Bornholdt and Sarah Broom), this time with the emphasis on the patient’s experience of medical settings and illness. Much of the argument centers around similar concerns as those already explored, namely the lyric poem’s ability to transcend subjective individual experience through the application of craft, so that the reader may engage with more universal truths: “an apt standpoint from which to assert the place of personal subjectivity in a context overwhelmed by clinical objectivity” (p. 189). Again, the close readings are detailed, thorough, and insightful, as they are in the fourth chapter concerning New Zealand’s Ingrid Horrocks, Anne Kennedy, and Jessica Le Bas. These “Parent Poets” employ “speakers outside the traditional lyric ‘I’ to widen the reach of their personal stories, adding power to the polemic strand of their journey-like series of poems” (p. 233), or what Emeney shortly afterward calls “crafted polemical truth-telling” (p. 234) through the avoidance of an overt “I” that problematizes the relationship between poetry and autobiography.
Emeney concludes with some summary statements on the undoubted impact that “narrative medicine and medical humanities movements have had … not only on the training of medical students, but also on the work of academics, sociologists, theorists, and poetry and fiction writers” (p. 237), resisting the kind of authority and depersonalization that Foucault noted of medical contexts in The Birth of the Clinic (1963). She reminds us that these poets question “inequities of power and personhood” (p. 238) and makes some exploratory comments on the status of these works as “key pieces of World Literature, offering insights into the feelings and desires of human beings in diverse situations of suffering” (p. 240), reminding us that “a globalizing world needs multiple viewpoints and multiple stories” (p. 241). Given that this work is published under the Studies in World Literature series, we might perhaps have expected to read a little more detailed and nuanced engagement with theories of world literature as they relate to the medical humanities, and Emeney has perhaps missed an opportunity here to make an argument of her own concerning such matters. But the overall effect of this book is affirmative: it offers sound scholarship and close readings, contextualized through theoretical and sociological materials, and humanizing conclusions that democratize questions of the lyric voice, questioning where authority lies in medicalized experiences. This will be a compelling landmark in the study of New Zealand’s poetry as well as within the broader field of medical poetry.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-sci-med-tech.
Andy C. Brown. Review of Emeney, Johanna, The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and the Medical Humanities.
H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|