Poetry, Prose and Film in Palliative Care Rotating Header Image


Poetry as Unifying Shared Experience

This study aims to use poetry reading and discussion, through its potential ability to facilitate pause, mutual listening and storytelling, to strengthen the philosophy on which Cicely Saunders’ vision of the hospice was conceived and developed by her practice and research (1967-85) as a place where patients do not feel isolated by the inability or fear to discuss their terminal condition, but instead can ‘be with’ their loved ones, their family and professional staff.

The dominant model on which palliative care institutions have historically developed is based on the medical clinic/hospital involving the service of medics and nursing to treat patients or to administer palliatives to prevent pain. Despite Cicely Saunders’ active work within the ‘hospice movement’ to render the journey to death as a stage of ‘life’, and the hospice institution as a place of life where being part of a community would be regarded as the most effective preparation for ‘death’ in a holistic sense, the hospice institution has resisted for many decades as modelled on the medical institution.

Complementary and Alternative Therapy is particularly interested in person-centred practice of medicine in which the patient becomes the driver of the therapy and the role of the practitioner is that of supporting through knowledge of his/her discipline and recommend to the patient the options that are available for their healing.A flourishing in the last decades of holistic alternative medicine and therapies,has shifted the understanding of the relationship between the medic and the patient and has pivoted around the concept of‘self-help’and‘self-cure’. Complementaryalternative medicine and therapiesaim to support the self-healing of the ill person by considering the body,mind and spirit as a whole functioning organism that requires homeostasisand balance. Central to this cure is the powerful relationship between the patient and the practitioner where power relations are on an equal par.In this way, complementary alternative therapy has differentiated itself from western medicine and its medicalisation and capillary colonisation of the ill person as a political body.

Philosopher John Armstrong and Alain de Botton in their volume art as therapy propose visual arts as having a clear therapeutic function in people’s lives. Specifically, they refer to and analyse the seven functions of visual art as: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation. The present study takes into consideration the therapeutic functions intrinsic to art and extends them to poetry in order to verify its therapeutic effects and impact on peoples’ lives.

The use of art as therapy in the palliative day care unit may be one of the most powerful ways for patients to connect to each other, to their family and their professional staff in a new and much deeper way in order to transform they journey towards death as a life experience. This falls in line with Professor David Kuhl (MD, PhD), who has conducted research in the field of medical humanities on the connections of the experience of ‘facing death and embracing life’, ‘what dying people want is the same as what living people want, primarily a sense of connection to themselves, to those they love and who love them, and to a sense or essence of something greater than themselves’ (2002, 2006).

Dr Riccobono’s research adopts the idiom of modern therapy to the study of poetry. Basing herself on the concept of ‘third space’ as theorised by H. Bhabha (2004), on ‘relational storytelling’ and on the ‘philosophy of vocal expression’ as theorised by A. Cavarero (2000 and 2005, respectively), reading and discussion of poetry can turn the ‘reading room’ within the hospice into a space of encounter and exchange where people are able to negotiate between their identity (first space, eg. home, familiar spaces where one can be comfortably oneself) and the regulations to which they may be subjected whilst admitted or visiting the medical institution (second space, eg. the unfamiliar space of the institution, or a foreign country). Within a reading room that is perceived as a ‘third space’ patients, family members and professional staff are present as human beings with their feelings and personal experiences, free to listen, discuss, and relate more deeply with each other whilst exchanging their stories.

The activity of ‘exchanging stories’ is to be understood here as discussion around poetic characters’ stories, fictional stories that may have a metaphorical meaning that may be picked up freely by participants, and may resonate deeply with them. No participants will be asked to share their personal stories with others, however, they are welcome to do so and to be listened to if they freely chose to disclose part of their stories.

Having conducted an extensive bibliographical search in the area of ‘poetry in palliative care’, Dr Rossella M. Riccobono (University of St Andrews) has discovered that there is a gap in the knowledge around the therapeutic use of poetry interventions in palliative care. Even if some studies have been conducted on poetry reading and some on writing of poetry in palliative care, a systemic study on the feasibility and on the benefits of reading and discussing poetry in the hospice day care unit has yet not been undertaken.

In particular Dr Riccobono has found evidence from her experience as a volunteer in a hospice that the reading of poetry thematically dealing with end of life, terminal illness, and loss, is particularly powerful in eliciting patients to open up to the recounting of their stories, fears and feelings in preparation of dying.


Biographical Note and Qualifications

The Principal Investigator of this project, Dr Rossella M. Riccobono, has a PhD in Italian poetry from The University of Edinburgh (2000) and has worked extensively in both teaching and researching Italian and European poetry, with particular interest in Modernist and Contemporary poetry, poetry of trauma, and poetry for wellbeing as arts therapy.

In 2015, she trained at The Reader’s Group Trust (Liverpool) and qualified as a Reader Therapist to facilitate wellbeing in marginalised groups. The method used by the Reader’s Group Trust has been studied and positively evaluated as therapy for wellbeing by members of the Psychology Department at the University of Liverpool in connection with several societal marginalised groups.

Dr Riccobono has also completed a further online diploma in Bibliotherapy with The University of Warwick. She is currently also engaged in active research in the beneficial use of humanities to improve medical practice and has delivered a paper (‘Reading and Discussing Poetry in Group Activities as Experiential and Reflective Practice in Palliative Care’) at The Medical Humanities Association conference ‘Critical Stories’ which was held at Keele University in June 2017.

She has written articles on the Healing Value of travel narrative and ‘cinema of poetry after trauma (‘Pier Vittorio Tondelli between Europe and Emilia: Centre and Margins in Camere separate’, in The poetics of the Margins. Mapping Europe from the Interstices (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), pp. 55-71; ‘ “Il filo di Arianna” The Healing Value of Nanni Moretti’s Cinema of Poetry’, Spunti e ricerche, 30, 2016: 23-40) and another article on the subject of poetry as therapy (‘Voice, Storytelling and Agency in Antonella Anedda’s ‘Residenze invernali’ [1989]’, forthcoming 2019). She is currently working on a monograph entitled Re-Orienting the Gaze. Voice, Agency and Storytelling, which will be published with Longo Editore (Ravenna) in 2020.

Dr Riccobono is also a certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher (IYA U.K.) and is also qualified in other complementary therapies. Her long-standing experience in complementary and alternative therapies and clinical practice adds depth to her interest and ability to conduct work with the public and research in reading and discussing poetry as arts therapy.