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What can we learn from a dying poet?
  1. John Birtwhistle
  1. Correspondence to John Birtwhistle, 19 Moor Oaks Road, Broomhill, Sheffield S10 1BX, UK; birtwhistle{at}

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Our publication of a new poem by Clive James may provoke many questions, among them what any poem is doing in a scientific journal. This journal has had a poetry page since its first volume in 2011, offering insights into the predicament of dying patients through literary as well as scientific writing. I am a literary academic not a doctor, but as an editor who has helped with the poetry page I have gained the following impression of its value and that of Clive James’ poem.

I learn from healthcare professionals that in the care for any patient it is important to understand not only what is going wrong and why, but also the depth and complexity of the patient's distress. Moreover, carers need to understand themselves and their colleagues and the stress that everyone around them is working under. If in the midst of all this they can show empathy, they may receive better information from the patient as to what is really wrong with them and what that person wishes to be done about it. Hence they may have a better technical understanding of their patients’ distress and can make better decisions on their behalf.

There are many thousands of poems about Death in the abstract. Philosophising about Death is a typical way of rendering it less real as an experience. But for this journal we look for quite specific kinds of poems. They have to speak about the actual situation of the dying person, their family, their friends or the doctors and other workers in the specialty of care for the dying. So we began with ‘Felix Randal,’ that profound poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins which has so much to say about any professional carer, in his case a priest.1 Other poems …

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  • Competing interests None. Clive James played no part in the commissioning, writing or approval of this article. A proof was shown to him as a matter of courtesy.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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