Poetic Diagnoses: The Art and Science of Close Reading

Poetry in America intern Lauren Claus wrote the following post for us in between filling out her applications for medical school (good luck, Lauren!).  Although Lauren pursued a pre-med track as an undergraduate at Harvard, her choice of major might surprise you: English.

There is more overlap between medicine and literature than many expect, and the interdisciplinary field known as the Medical Humanities is becoming increasingly popular as those connections become more apparent to doctors and humanists alike. Lauren’s post– a reflection on poetry’s power to serve as both an outlet and a vehicle for emotion, and to evoke an empathetic or sympathetic response from readers– touches on how literature has long served as a window into, and onto, emotional and physical health.

It’s been more than fifty years since the death of Ernest Hemingway, but we are no closer to knowing the secrets of this terrible event. The famous writer left behind no record of his reasons. The shotgun could have been an accidental killer, or Hemingway might have died from mental illness – supposedly spurred by his struggles with bipolar disorder, depression, and alcoholism, Hemingway might have raised the gun to his own forehead. If that occurred, then Hemingway’s personal concoction of diagnoses moved to the tangible at the moment of his death; his illness became tragically physical.


Where might one turn in order to understand the pain of people who encounter mental illness? According to Hemingway, the answer might be poetry.”


But acknowledging this transition does not help us understand why it occurred. In this case (as occurs far too often), mental illness seems mysterious. We cannot know the thoughts that lingered in Hemingway’s mind, as one might know the pain that lingered for a patient with a more physical disease.

Where might one turn in order to understand the pain of people who encounter mental illness? According to Hemingway, the answer might be poetry.

Of his friend Ezra Pound, Hemingway once said, “Pound’s crazy. All poets are. They have to be.” And many take Hemingway quite seriously on this point; we believe that poets can use their writing as a vehicle of expressing, and thus elucidating, their mental conditions. We think the darkness of Edgar Allen Poe’s poems reflects back his struggles with alcoholism and addiction. Our thoughts about Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry are colored by our memory of her depressive episodes. We believe the life-changing aspects of a mental illness diagnosis can be hidden within a poet’s language.

This may indeed be true; in fact, the act of producing poetry likely has such a clarifying and therapeutic effect. But poetry offers even more than this, a reflection of its author. Poets can harness all the intensity of poetic production in order to more radically understand another’s perspective.

William Carlos Williams certainly did so, when he wrote “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime.” Right as the poem opens, the speaker pushes into the widow’s perspective:

Sorrow is my own yard
Where the new grass
Flames as it has flamed
Often before, but not
With the cold fire
That closes round me this year.


The speaker, indeed, is the widow here. She conjures her sorrow as a yard, before giving us the biographical detail that “Thirty-five years / I lived with my husband.” The stark past tense in that brief sentence helps us understand why the widow feels such sorrow. That short sentence is the only explanation in this poem, but it is explanation enough.

Floral imagery continues as the poem moves beyond the yard. The speaker tells us

The plum tree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red,
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they,
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.


Here, the speaker describes a classic symptom of depression – anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure from activities which were previously enjoyable – only after she invites us into her emotional experience. We can feel the weight of her grief, the heaviness. We understand her thoughts before they become a physical reality. Through poetry, we enter her pain.