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The University of Southampton
Doctoral College

Wellbeing and Poetry

By Aline Giordano, Doctoral College Manager

Harvard medical students write poetry. Why?

As Shara Yurkiewicz explains in this interview:

‘The first time I wrote a poem was after a patient passed away. […] When it comes to processing my feelings, poetry is the way. I spit out all the emotional content that’s been put into me during the day. It’s very cathartic.’

The historical roots of poetry link us back to Apollo who was dual god of medicine and poetry. The ancient Greeks knew of the importance of words and feelings in the healing process.

Nutritious food, regular exercise, breaks from the computer screen, some ‘me time’ are all good habits. How about incorporating poetry in our ‘me time’? As we are socially distancing and trying to make sense of what the new normal is going to be, a lot is being ‘put into us’. I find that a gentle way of ‘giving it back’ in a compassionate way is to write poetry.

Last week, I was given the very sad news that a friend of mine had passed away. I felt raw. I don’t know why but I thought of the book ‘Love in the time of cholera’ by Gabriel García Márquez. I thought about writing a poem entitled ‘Death in the time of COVID-19’, but I couldn’t write. So, I reached for the poem I had written the night before. Come to think of it, I was probably writing it as my friend was passing away in the Countess Mountbatten Hospice.

On the ashes of the tree I stand
We have burned you to the ground
The land is vast —
Where are the trees?
The grass is young
It bends to your will
Ashes and clay
Are all that remain

I have been reading this poem every day since, and listening to music. I find poetry and music grounding. They help me make time and space to honour my grief. Writing and reading poetry is supporting me through this process.

If you can spare another one minute and forty seconds, I invite you to listen this wonderful poem and heart-felt delivery of ‘Wild geese’ by Mary Oliver.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

(Mary Oliver)  

If you’re interested in the discipline of Poetry Therapy, check out this short journal paper by Dr Nicholas Mazza, Professor of Social Work Emeritus at the Florida State University: ‘The evolution of poetic inquiry, practice, education, and evaluation in poetry therapy’ (Mazza, 2017).

Get in touch if you have any question or would like to share your poems. It would be lovely to hear from you. Email me at:

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