Reflections on the first Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine
Writing about web page http://www.hippocrates-poetry.org
A sunny, cherry blossom spring morning greeted early delegates enrolling for a new International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine, held at Warwick Arts Centre on Saturday 10 April. An exciting day was planned with a panel of almost 30 oral and poster contributors, including Warwick IAS visiting doctor and poet Peter Goldsworthy from Adelaide on the Physiology of Literature; and Lise Day from Cape Town, who discussed poetry and the politics of HIV-AIDS in South Africa. The symposium also included the Awards Ceremony for the new International Hippocrates Prize to celebrate poetry and medicine and by the end of the afternoon over 120 local, national and international delegates as well as poetry prize-winners had safely arrived.
The prize had been launched five months previously, jointly with Michael Hulse, an international poet, and member of Warwick’s Writing Programme. We offered the 2010 Hippocrates Prize in two categories: an ‘open’ category which anyone could enter, and an ‘NHS’ category open to National Health Service-related employees and health students. The first prize for the winning poem in each category was to be £5,000, with second and third prizes of £1,000 and £500, and 20 commendations each awarded £50 both for the Open and NHS categories. The prize and the symposium were both supported by the Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine, the Warwick Institute of Advanced Study and the Wellcome Trust.
In just a few months almost 1,700 entries had arrived from an astonishing 31 countries, from Fiji to Finland. A GP practice manager, NHS education adviser and distinguished New Zealand poet were among the six finalists shortlisted in early March by judges broadcaster and journalist James Naughtie, NHS Medical Director Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, and poet and doctor Dannie Abse, with commended and top 300 entries from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, France, Greece and Kenya.
The judges’ remarks after the short-listing tell the story. James Naughtie said that the entries were: "exhilarating to read. It was very moving to sense the struggles which have to be kept private but can be allowed to show through in poetry. It is a great start for one of the most original prizes that has come along for a long time."
Sir Bruce Keogh commented that: "the entries for the competition have shown that the emotional and creative side of the NHS is as strong as ever. The poems that I have had the pleasure of reading have reinforced my view that medicine is an art as well as a science and that there is poetry in its soul."
Dannie Abse added: “There was an astonishing amount of talent amongst National Health Service-related entries. The judges were also allowed great pleasure from the inventiveness, wit and poignancy of the more professional poets.”
All three judges attended the Hippocrates Prize awards ceremony. Dannie Abse, a Past-President of the Poetry Society, read movingly from a wide range of his poems inspired by medical themes and went on to sign copies of his poetry collections, from his book ‘New Selected Poems 1949-2009: Anniversary Collection’, short-listed for this year’s Ted Hughes Prize for new poetry, to his new 2010 collection in memory of his wife: ‘Two For Joy - Scenes from Married Life’.
James Naughtie then spoke with passion on behalf of the judges of their delight at the quality and range of the NHS and open entries, from serious themes, to humour in adversity, such as in ‘The Doubt about Gout’ by commended Canadian poet, Gary Geddes. His parting words were of strong encouragement for the continuation of the Hippocrates Prize as a major international annual poetry award.
Sir Bruce Keogh, Medical Director of the NHS, thanked the NHS entrants and presented commendations and awards to winning NHS poets. The £5,000 NHS 1st prize went to ‘It’s about a man’ by Wendy French who facilitates creative writing in health care and community settings.
Wendy said: “I'm thrilled to have won the NHS section of this prize as my father was one of the first doctors to work for the NHS when it was formed in 1947. Since then, people from three generations of my family have been associated with the service. The winning poem was inspired by my father.”
Her projects have resulted in three books by young people with mental illness. Wendy has two collections of poetry, the latest, ‘Surely You Know This’ . Second prize of £1,000 went to Alex Josephy from Bow in London, an educationist working with NHS doctors in South-East England. Her winning poem ‘The Corridor’ was inspired by one of the longest hospital corridors in Europe, at Whipp’s Cross Hospital. Her poems have been published in Rialto and Smiths Knoll. Finally another £500 went to 3rd prize-winner Edward Picot from Kent, who manages a small General Practice. His poem ‘Time to get ready’ was influenced by his father-in-law’s coming to terms with his vigour being compromised by age.
Dannie Abse presented commendations and awards to winning poets in the open category. The £5000 1st open prize-winner was Emeritus Professor CK Stead from Auckland, New Zealand, a distinguished writer with a substantial international reputation as poet, novelist and critic. He has also been awarded the inaugural 2010 Sunday Times international short story prize.
He said he was surprised and delighted to be the first winner of the ‘open’ section of the Hippocrates poetry prize for ‘Ischaemia’. “I wrote the poem in response to the announcement of the award. Over many years I have written poems in the persona of Catullus, so the Roman poet has become as much a fictional as an historical character in my writing. I decided therefore that Catullus would suffer the stroke I suffered 5 years ago and that he would recover in the same way. I’m very happy the judges felt the experiment worked, and enormously grateful for this generous award.”
The £500 2nd open prize went to Sian Hughes from Banbury for ‘Treatments’, which she wrote in response to her mother’s experience of treatment for breast cancer. Her first book of poems, The Missing, appeared last year. The 3rd open prize went to Pauline Stainer from Suffolk for ‘Insight’, in part a response to her own experience of loss of vision in one eye. She is author of nine collections of poetry from Bloodaxe Books.
A video recording of CK Stead reading ‘Ischaemia’ closed the awards session. The day ended with a relaxed reception and dinner hosted by the Vice-Chancellor and his wife for award-winners, judges, speakers and guests.
Closing reflections? Tempting to consider shinkansen methods for future events. We were entranced by the poetic efforts of a Serbian to keep the organisers motivated. And featuring on the BBC World Service has lead to some remarkable correspondence, including from a Berlin-Russian poetess, and a US youth leader passionate about educating her charges about the risks of hyperuricaemia!
Finally, special thanks are due to the following for their enthusiasm, advice and support: Prof Andy Adam, Donna Allard, Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, Carole Baldock, Dr Prithwish Banerjee, Alison Bell, Jon Browning, Jonathan Bruun, Prof Dinesh Bhugra, Gemma Cook, Prof Wendy Currie, Tatjana Debeljacki, Peter Dunn, Prof Thomas Docherty, Emma Davies, Maggie Fergusson, Prof Steve Field, Dr Nils Fietje, Prof Margot Finn, Prof Ian Gilmore, Penny Harris, Zoë Horwich, Roger Ireland, Sarah James, Kate Kelland, Jane Lawrence, Ros Lucas, Dr Alasdair Malcolm, Prof Hilary Marland, Stuart Mathieson, Kelly Parkes-Harrison, Deirdre Prinsloo, Trevor Seeley, Dr Michael Shaw, Emma Shepley, Emma Singer, Prof Terence Stephenson, Prof Robert Stockley, Miriam Valencia - and many more.
All winning poems and the top 20 commended poems in each category, have published in a 46 poem anthology available from
Poetry and medicine is discussed in a recent Lancet article:
For more on the Hippocrates prize see:
Professor Donald Singer