Poetry can capture the essence of the art of nursing and remind people why they went nursing in the first place, says Lorraine Ritchie, the editor of New Zealand’s first nurses’ poetry book.
Nursing Review spoke to Ritchie and nurse Dianne MacDonald, whose poem was the source of the book’s title, about poetry and nursing in the lead-up to National Poetry Day, which is this Friday.
Listening with my heart features 33 poems by 21 nurse poets and was published with funding from the New Zealand Nurses Organisation’s Visibility of Nursing project. The poems were selected by Ritchie (an NZNO professional advisor) and two non-nurse poets, from more than 200 poems sent in by around 80 nurses. Ritchie says many of the chosen poems feature the significant life events that nurses are privy to, from births to deaths.
“Some of the poems aren’t easy poems – they are difficult poems – but they are an expression of what it is we go through as nurses,” said Ritchie who writes poetry herself.
“I know a lot of nurses have been delighted by reading them and having them read to them,” she said. “It takes them back to what we all went nursing for and where we come from.”
Ritchie says compassion is a large part of nursing. But compassion fatigue can be very common, with nurses often busy and stressed by working in the current health climate.
“These poems are kind of a reminder of the special moments, the privileged moments and the quiet times we have as nurses,” said Ritchie. “It’s also a way for nurses to perhaps reflect on their own practice and think about how they interact with people. I guess it is more about the art of nursing than the science of nursing. It is about feelings, and about relationships and about caring.”
Dianne MacDonald said her poem Home actually grew out of her struggling a few years ago to write a reflection exemplar for her portfolio about a home visit to a client.
“I think I’ve only written two poems, so I can’t really call myself a poet,” laughed MacDonald, who is a lead nurse/nehi arahanga for Nelson-based Māori health provider Te Piki Oranga.
She said the exemplar hadn’t been going well. “I found the more wordy you made the situation the less clear it was. I ended up with this quite big and waffly exemplar that took away from the essence of the actual context.”
So she pared back the words to get to the heart of what she wanted to say about the connection she’d had with the patient, and it became a poem. “It ended up being fewer words but probably saying more… and definitely with more impact.”
The title of the nurse poetry book is taken from a line in the second verse of her poem:
“I listened then realised he was holding my hand tightly
I stopped listening to the words and started listening with my heart.”
MacDonald said she would recommend other nurses using poetry to reflect their nursing experiences. She said she went to a nursing conference recently where there was a breakout exercise where nurses were talked through how to capture an experience in words as a poem. As a supervisor of other nurses she thought poetry could be also a good supervision tool for people struggling to find words.
The response to her own poem by other nurses and health workers has surprised her, with people often very touched. “I’ve had people in tears.”
You can order a copy of Listening with my heart – Poems by Aotearoa New Zealand nurses here.