Poetry of Departures

Health/illness experience has been a rich seam for poetry and there are some wonderful precedents – we’re thinking of Auden’s famous ‘Care Home’ poem, Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’ or ‘The Building’ or ‘Ambulances’, Sharon Old’s The Father, and all those beautiful, bitter-sweet ‘cancer poems’ which you can read about here Cancer Poetry, by Ian Twiddy, 2015 MacMillan.

We are very interested in how poets employ language in ways that (in the old fashioned sense of the poet) make experience and both of us are amateur poets (hopefully not quite of the Vogon variety…). And so we are interested in how artistic researchers create literary forms as part of a project of stimulating public discussion about issues such as dementia and end of life.

Our project departs from this tradition. While we are interested in how poetry (and the arts in general) can be used to promote public engagement with issues, we are even more interested in how poetry can be used as part of reflexive practice in research, for researchers.

While Tia has used formal poetry as a kind of ‘imaginative method’ for exploring the ways that a particular family (her family) responds to the experience of dementia, Gary has for a while now been writing little fast-composed poems about people and events in his work as a music therapist. Sometimes this is to remember people after they have died. It helps him process the sadness associated with the loss of music participants. Other times it is to capture a ‘telling’ moment, to think about the wider world of relationships and happenings as it is refracted in a ‘grain’ of interaction and exchange. In both cases, the poems are responses to things they’ve noticed about others, and about themselves in response to others.

The use of poetry here places a minute detail – an event or experience – inside a frame. That framing in turn helps to hold a moment, to consider things in detail and to consider modes of description as they have power over the shape and content of what we describe and then come to remember and know. Dwelling in this way can help draw to our attention things we want to know and analyse that our other methods of data ‘collection’ cannot address. And it can alert us to some of our presuppositions and reflex practices of ‘writing up’.

Writing ethnography is, as Paul Atkinson has observed, inevitably a literary endeavour. So too is all science writing – scientific enquiry and scientific praxis has, in other words, a poetics (back to Goethe). If every literary foray packages/repackages, arranges, highlights, translates, traduces, constitutes, and constrains its subject, then thinking about what comes out when we write within a genre, style or form calls attention to the social contract we make with the words we use, and the words that use us. And so we are asking ourselves – what emerges when we ‘tell’ about the field in short, ‘poetic’ bundles of words (as opposed to field notes), how might these bundles, because of their particularity, sensitise us to things that we might not otherwise have noticed and – this is the key – with what kinds of consequences for those involved?

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