‘Doctor X and I discuss chest pain’ — Poems in the Waiting Room

I’ve just finished judging the Poems in the Waiting Room competition for 2013. (See http://waitingroompoems.wordpress.com/) Any literary competition sets a number of constraints: the pre-eminent one here is the intended destination of the winning poems, which will appear in leaflets in medical, hospice, rest home or prison waiting rooms.  The ethos behind Poems in the Waiting Room is to help form the healing environment; to present poetry that draws from springs of well-being. 


While one of the wider roles of art might be to expose hypocrisy, inequality, or darkness, and sometimes its role is to shock us out of complacency, it seems to me that the focus of poetry when we’re in this context — teetering on the fulcrum of many opposites —is to offer solace, affirmation, reassurance, uplift.


Sometimes, it’s true, solace comes from discovering a voice that is honest about pain and loss. The difference between a poem that is frank about anxiety, dread, sorrow or agony, and that suits the ‘waiting room’ context, and one that doesn’t, is possibly a matter of tone. For me, it seemed if a poem offered a way out of those psychological ‘stuck places’ either through outright humour, or an ability to sport with language that itself enacts a kind of robust optimism, it was a good fit. Even if the topic is somber, an energy for linguistic play shows the wits are still sharp despite uncertainty or trauma.  I sought poems that knew that wit, in fact, is the pilot light of the spirits; and that poems in this context should offer a measure of comfort, rather than the knife-glint of confrontation.


With this approach as my ‘reading glasses’, I set out to sift through over 300 entries. I was pretty relieved that the first cull was so easy: in half a minute less than no time (well, after five days, actually) I had 33 finalists: 15 from Dunedin, 18 from the rest of the country. I was startled to realise this weighting. Dunedin is a city rich in poets, yes, but then so too are Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. In large part this is explained by the fact that the competition offers a prize for an ‘otherwise unplaced Dunedin poem’. This in itself probably draws local writers from the top of the range to apply. Yet at that first swoop, I was still siphoning off poems for the three main prizes, ignoring their place of origin.


I had to get ruthless, of course. (Which seems a terrible pun in this context: but it’s true, publisher and editor Ruth Arnison kept well clear of the selection process!) You’ve probably heard it all before: but in a competition context, spelling mistakes and grammatical mistakes stand out all the more. Where a magazine editor might show leniency on errors in submissions, competition judges have to be more cut-throat.


Even after an arduous process of hummings and haaings and oh dear, oh dear, what to do, so many of merit, how can we bear to part, oh now I’ll never know who wrote that one or this one, so melancholic and plangent and packed with compressed personal history…  I still had eight strong contenders. (I sorely wanted to give ‘Urban Harvest’, ‘Green Sky Blue Tree’,  ‘Singing at the Mall’ places also: but sometimes even judges can’t be choosers, because the rules are the rules so help us poetry.)


In the end,  I went for poems that — variously — sustained an inner logic; darted just out of the clutches of cliché; had a vivid sense of character or psychological state; that left some things only hinted at; that spoke of endurance, tolerance; that developed a sense of narrative; that achieved aesthetic closure without hitting the coffin nail with a sledge hammer, or giving a corny comedian’s cymbal clash; or that recreated a vivid sensory world; that achieved clarity of syntax.


The latter element I suppose is one of the main attributes that helps to bridge the world of poets, poetics, academics, and the world of readers unhabituated to poetry. None of the entries were particularly experimental: yet I hope that if the pamphlet helps readers to fall for poetry, they are one step along the way to a broader reading experience.



The main impulse behind the original Poems in the Waiting Room endeavor in the UK was patient-centred; yet another aim was to offer gratitude to the health service staff, and to help them create a healing environment. Given this history, I was delighted to award first place to ‘Doctor X and I discuss chest pain’. There were in fact a large number of poems on the waiting room experience: it wasn’t meant to be a theme as such, and the subject generally brought up awkward doggerel that was far from therapeutic. In fact, as I trawled through them my whole experience went into a kind of virtual waiting room. I sighed, I squirmed in irritation, I looked at the clock, I tried to be stoic about the ache and wondered when my name would be called….It’s perhaps even more remarkable, then, that this poem stood out.


The only mention of the doctor in the winning poem is in the title. Yet the extended metaphor used throughout (chest pain as dog) gives us the sense of time for conversation: of an empathetic presence listening: of a dialogue where it is safe for the patient to slide into the realm of imagination, to riff on pain, to give his or her experience a language far removed from the clinical context but have this convey the essence of the unpredictability, the savagery, the vulnerability, the paring back of self to animal fear. It’s a poem that read aloud falters in and out of strong rhythm, that falters in and out of powerful rhyme: the irregularity seems perfectly, poignantly apt for the subject. 


The poet calls on the word ‘lambent’ — here meaning the way light plays like flames over the dog’s fur, and perhaps that pain darts like fire through the patient’s nervous system. Yet its other sense is also apt for the poem: it deals lightly, gracefully, playfully with its subject. There is a delicacy of wit here that still allows the somberness of theme to stand starkly silhouetted.


Second place goes to ‘Zoo Flamingos’. What sparky larks, what funny gulls. Aurally this poem works mainly through assonance, alliteration consonance rather than a taut rhythm, but its chief technique is — well — visual exuberance. Its deliberate excess of simile, its reaching for the apt collective term for a flock of flamingoes, its happily unapologetic pun (pinking shears!) its emphatic, repetitive final line that shows how far the language has been stretched to try to match the visual surprise — “Pinkedy, pink, pink, pink!” conveys a scampish scampering, ebullience.


I found third place, and the ‘best unplaced Dunedin poem’, the hardest to award. Three poems jostled for position.  ‘The youngest cabbage tree’ gained third place because of its combination of clear imagery, its sympathy for slightly marginal character, its nascent narrative sense in its kinship to myth, legend, or fairytale; its recognizably indigenous setting; the fact that when read aloud, it has more aural harmony than the eye first spies. What it sacrifices in propelling rhythm it makes up for in cadence, which if read with the right emphasis, strengthens the grip of the closing lines.


Oh, Best unplaced Dunedin poem! Hardest task of all! I have to mention that I was warmly drawn in by the prosody of ‘Manspider’ and the sentiment of resilience, hope, endurance — the legend of the thirteenth century Scottish King Robert the Bruce hovering perhaps behind this small domestic moment of human and spider observing each other. I wondered if the exigencies of keeping to a tight form diluted the vividness or freshness of simile and metaphor — whether more traditional means of description are often pulled up from the memory-wells when we write in conventional prosody. Yet on the other hand, the technically much looser winner of this category, ‘Country School Fair 1946’ also uses a range of descriptions that aren’t unexpected:  ‘bees battered’, ‘wild roses tapped’… What swung me to ‘Country School Fair 1946’ was my sense of the publication context. The effervescence, the tiny hint of anarchy, the sense of the children’s sensuous — and sensual — discovery; the fact that as adult readers we project knowledge into the unknowing implied in the little kids’ narrative voice; the fact that this simple, joyful poem gives readers a moment of escape from the grind, the arduousness, that is bravely confronted in ‘Manspider’, is what decided me. It’s an unassuming poem that lifts us far from the waiting room context: into life vividly reveled in.


If it’s not contradicting myself too much, I’m confident that these poems will still thrive if liberated from the waiting room, too. Fine poetry travels far, and we need it on all kinds of occasions. On that note, I can’t resist repeating feedback from one patient at an overseas medical center, whose comments were posted up on the UK website.:


“I am a widower who lives alone. At the age of 91 I am fortunate not to be visiting the waiting room of the local Medical Centre very often. But when I do so I always enjoy reading Poems in the Waiting Room. So much in fact that I am wondering whether there is any possibility of seeing your little publications without feeling unwell?” Patient Cumbria

http://www.poemsinthewaitingroom.org/from-patients.html accessed 18 March 2013



First: ‘Doctor X and I discuss chest pain’  — Peter McCoy from Nelson

Second: ‘Zoo Flamingos’ — Stephanie Mayne from Auckland

Third: ‘The youngest cabbage tree’ —Jan Hutchison, Christchurch

Best unplaced Dunedin poem: ‘Country School 1946’ — Joan Anderson


Also mentioned:

‘Urban Harvest’ — Joyce Elwood-Smith, Wellington

‘Green Sky Blue Tree’ —Bernadette Hall

‘Singing at the Mall’ — Diane Brown

‘Manspider’ —Jonathan Cweorth

And in case you skipped the link above: here it is again! Check out Ruth Arnison’s blog for regular updates on the Poems in the Waiting Room project. http://waitingroompoems.wordpress.com/

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2 Responses to ‘Doctor X and I discuss chest pain’ — Poems in the Waiting Room

  1. Anne Else says:

    Lovely post, Emma. I was so pleased when Ruth chose one of Harvey’s poems recently (Giverny in Autumn) for Poems in the Waiting Room.

    • ejneale says:

      Thank you Anne! Harvey was such a marvellous teacher – he made a big impact on me in my first year at university. It was wonderful to be taught so early at university by someone who knew the craft from the inside. Harvey and Othello and my questions about Malvolio; and Harvey entrusting me with a copy of a book about Shakespeare and evil … these are some of the things that made me feel as if education was a joy. Is his poem due out in the upcoming winter issue? I’m off to a waiting room today and I’ll keep my eyes peeled to see if it’s already in any leaflets still in the surgery… though they disappear fast as snow in summer once they’re out.

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