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Personal Essay: Poetry and prose offer different ways to deal with illness

NovemberFrontmatter_PersonalEssay_Sherman-KennethOn the day I was diagnosed with cancer, I began a journal. Throughout my adult life, writing has been my touchstone and I knew that if I were to survive the upheaval that accompanies a life-threatening illness, I’d have to rely on the stabilizing effect of words.

What will you find in the journal? Records of medical appointments and tests; impressions of doctors and technicians; expressions of fear and regret, and occasionally, cautious hope. You’ll also come across quotations from books I was reading at the time, ruminations about what illness means to the sick person … and a few attempts at poetry.

The entries proved fertile ground when, four years later, I came to write my memoir of illness, Wait Time. The structure of the book was there in the journal format and I opted to write in the first person to augment the reader’s sense of immediacy. I was fortunate in that I had a suspenseful narrative at hand: I’d been given a grim prognosis and I assumed the reader would stay with me through each setback, through each test result, eager to learn my fate.

But a good storyline is not enough for an absorbing memoir. Virginia Woolf observed that memoirs often fail when they “leave out the person to whom things happened.” To ensure that my book was vitally personal, I was as open and self-revealing as possible. Along the way, I felt free to digress, to consider our culture’s attitude toward illness, to question the doctor/patient relationship, and to worry over our sometimes-faltering health care system.

In my judgment, the prose snippets in my journal read fairly well, while the poems fall short. Resonating with self-pity and hurt, they lack substance. I have long admired figures such as Anna Akhmatova and Wilfred Owen, poets able to transmute the most excruciating experiences into credible poems. I wanted very much to compose lines imbued with the desperation I was feeling at the time, but I knew that I lacked the requisite detachment. I was too close to my subject.

Even after I was given the all clear, I found it difficult to sit down and purposely write poems about my illness. Prose is, by and large, the product of thought. Poetry, however, springs from the deep unconscious; its surfacing is unpredictable. As Yeats observed, one cannot will a work of the imagination into being.

The reader might ask, “But if you’ve already captured your cancer experience in prose, why attempt to do so again in poetry?” Poetry gains from the accumulation of experience. I knew that the reader would gain, too, because poetry cuts through the mundane, discards the superfluous, and most importantly, favours sound – especially, the Orphic note of loss.

There was something else that I was keenly aware of. Prose and poetry operate differently in regard to time. Prose is linear. In my memoir I replicate my cancer experience and take the reader on a virtual voyage through 12 difficult months. Poetry is non-linear: it leaps from image to image, from thought to thought.

I thought a lot about time when I was sick. A patient waits – for appointments, for doctors, for tests and their results. Even on days when you feel liberated from that limbo, you are distressingly aware of the fact that you no longer see time as those who are blessed with health see it: an unending horizon.
One day, two years after my diagnosis, I came across a line by Simone Weil concerning time. It set off the following poem:

Awaiting Biopsy Results

“Suffering,” says Simone Weil
“is time without direction.”
Light cuts through the blinds
razor-thin. In your state
of suspended animation
you listen for your heart
to beat
for the phone
to ring
for a voice
to call you back
to the living.

Looking back, I understand why this was the first of the cancer poems that were to come to me. The speaker of the poem is imprisoned, painfully reliant on an external voice to release him from his state of suspended animation. Until such an event, he suffers time. But the poet who has composed the poem – as well as the reader – has already been set free by the poem’s music.

As it turns out, the voice the poet was listening for was none other than his own. Once he finds that, he is on the road to recovery.


Kenneth Sherman’s memoir, Wait Time, is published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. The poetry collection Jogging with the Great Ray Charles is published by ECW Press.