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During medical school, I had Nowlan, a New Brunswick poet who developed thyroid cancer at the age of thirty-three, as my major tutor in pain. Before he was diagnosed and eventually underwent three major surgeries, he wrote a poetry of fine lyric, a mainly descriptive poetry that stuck to stanza. But after his cancer, his style exploded: he started to write about himself, about his own impressions and feelings, about his own frailties and how they manifested themselves in others and, most importantly, about his own life-threatening illness.
“The Boil” is typical of the kind of poem Nowlan wrote in what I call his middle period; perhaps enamoured of William Carlos Williams’ variable foot, with great attention paid to breath. There is great attention paid to typography, meant to simulate the rolling of a boil–“prying it”–between one’s fingers, and the gasps as one does so. The words “master” and “servant”, though, have pride of place, occupying a line each. Nowlan’s poem provides a benign optimism: that the patient can understand her illness for what it is, and thereby steal its mastery. Nowlan’s poem describes how one can literally take a problem between one’s fingers and exchange servitude for perhaps not mastery (for the boil, though pierced, may form again, and it always levies pain), but at least a measure of control. And good poems are controlled performances…

During medical school, I had Nowlan, a New Brunswick poet who developed thyroid cancer at the age of thirty-three, as my major tutor in pain. Before he was diagnosed and eventually underwent three major surgeries, he wrote a poetry of fine lyric, a mainly descriptive poetry that stuck to stanza. But after his cancer, his style exploded: he started to write about himself, about his own impressions and feelings, about his own frailties and how they manifested themselves in others and, most importantly, about his own life-threatening illness.
“The Boil” is typical of the kind of poem Nowlan wrote in what I call his middle period; perhaps enamoured of William Carlos Williams’ variable foot, with great attention paid to breath. There is great attention paid to typography, meant to simulate the rolling of a boil–“prying it”–between one’s fingers, and the gasps as one does so. The words “master” and “servant”, though, have pride of place, occupying a line each. Nowlan’s poem provides a benign optimism: that the patient can understand her illness for what it is, and thereby steal its mastery. Nowlan’s poem describes how one can literally take a problem between one’s fingers and exchange servitude for perhaps not mastery (for the boil, though pierced, may form again, and it always levies pain), but at least a measure of control. And good poems are controlled performances…


During medical school, I had Nowlan, a New Brunswick poet who developed thyroid cancer at the age of thirty-three, as my major tutor in pain. Before he was diagnosed and eventually underwent three major surgeries, he wrote a poetry of fine lyric, a mainly descriptive poetry that stuck to stanza. But after his cancer, his style exploded: he started to write about himself, about his own impressions and feelings, about his own frailties and how they manifested themselves in others and, most importantly, about his own life-threatening illness.
“The Boil” is typical of the kind of poem Nowlan wrote in what I call his middle period; perhaps enamoured of William Carlos Williams’ variable foot, with great attention paid to breath. There is great attention paid to typography, meant to simulate the rolling of a boil–“prying it”–between one’s fingers, and the gasps as one does so. The words “master” and “servant”, though, have pride of place, occupying a line each. Nowlan’s poem provides a benign optimism: that the patient can understand her illness for what it is, and thereby steal its mastery. Nowlan’s poem describes how one can literally take a problem between one’s fingers and exchange servitude for perhaps not mastery (for the boil, though pierced, may form again, and it always levies pain), but at least a measure of control. And good poems are controlled performances.
Poems themselves, through their own control over experience, can also give the poet/patient control not over the ailment but over the experience. As Julia Darling, Fellow in Health and Literature in the English School of Newcastle University writes, “One of the hardest things about being unwell is feeling disempowered and out of control. [Reading and] writing poetry can make you feel in charge again.”[1] Charlene Breedlove also remarks on the unique way that poetry addresses the experience of illness: “[P]oetry remains the language of choice, the only language that gives solace to the soul and revives the imagination.”[2]
I turned to this once when treating a lady with terminal breast cancer. I hesitatingly gave her poems, and she returned a week later, saying she had read them, and that they “helped.” There were no unintended side effects. I pried a little, asking her how they had helped; she simply said “I don’t know.” I don’t think she was just trying to please me, I don’t think she was telling the doctor what he wanted to hear. We had a frank relationship. I think she was just reading good poetry: epiphanies are not just for the articulate. And at the next visit, she gave me a poem written about chemotherapy.
The first instance of bibliotherapy occurred in ancient Greece, where the door to the library at Thebes read PSYCHES IATREION , or “The Healing Place of the Soul.” Alden Nowlan is an honourary Thebian.
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fn1. 1. [_The Poetry Cure_], edited by Darling and Fuller. Bloodaxe Books. 2005.
fn2. 2. [_uncharted lines_], edited by Charlene Breedlove. Boaz Publishing
Company. 1998.

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