Hippocrates prize anthology, ed. by Michael Hulse and Donald Singer

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The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine ranks as one of the more unusual, and now well-established, international poetry awards. It was founded in 2009 by Donald Singer and Michael Hulse with the aim of bringing together national and international perspectives on themes that unite the disciplines of poetry and medicine.

This attractively produced anthology comprises 59 prizewinning and commended poems in the health professional, open and young poet categories from some 50 poets from around the world. While most of the published entries come from England and the US, there are also entries by poets from Australia, the Philippines, Switzerland and Singapore. 

There is always the possibility that an anthology such as this will have limited appeal. Medical terminology can be daunting to the lay person but, in this case, a helpful glossary has been provided. There are poems written from the standpoint of the doctor and the patient, family and friends. All are thought-provoking and profoundly human.

Several poems touch on the rigours of medical training and the pressure of meeting targets, while others explore aspects such as the doctor-patient relationship, the invention of a medical device or the difficulties that are inherent in trying to measure pain.  Not all of the poems are set in the West; there is one poem, for example, that describes the construction of a makeshift hospital near Mosul.

There are prose poems, narrative poems, found poems, sonnets and poems written in a Q&A format. Several poems contain references to art, literature and the Bible.  Although no biographical details are given about the poets themselves, it is clear that their experience is drawn from working in a number of specialties including paediatrics, obstetrics, geriatrics, psychiatry, general surgery, plastic surgery, oncology, dermatology and ophthalmology.

The poems that really stood out for me were the ones that travelled well beyond the confines of the hospital to embrace wider tracts of the poetical imagination. Mo Abu-Bakra’s ‘Ida’s Light’ – a poem that takes as its starting point the invention of the slit lamp for eye examinations - really soared:


     This detective reports to me in clear view, in haze, in fog,

     hears birdshots, smells bushfires, plays with snowballs, devours honeycombs,

     tracks snails, cattle and bears, runs in a horseshoe, walks on a paving stone,

     swims with salmon in sea fans, finds finger prints in shifting Sahara sand.


Louise Aronson’s powerful poem “Dear Patient” speaks about the human side of medicine: “seeing you breaks my heart … / I am /so, so sorry.”

Margaret McArthur makes a striking connection between the words “bone” and “china” for her entry ‘Bone China’ which travels – with its surprise ending – from a position of fragility to one of strength:


     They say I’ve china bones

     My soup tureen pelvis

     Cracked crazed and

     Dinner party weary

     Waiting for a fatal drop


In ‘All Our Names’ Robert Morrison Randolph considers the wider perspective and leaves us with a message we should all take to heart:


     Everything intertwines, everyone’s pain.

     I lie in bed ashamed for us all. The world is a hospital,

     guests and hosts; we need to love each other more.


The book is edited by Michael Hulse and Donald Singer and the judges who made the selection were Neal Baer, Jorie Graham, Jackie Kay, Owen Lewis and Maya Catherine Popa.For more information about the Hippocrates prize, and the Hippocrates Society, visit www.hippocrates-poetry.org.

Neil Leadbeater


The Hippocrates prize 2017, ed. by Michael Hulse and Donald Singer, The Hippocrates Press, £10.


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