Corinna Wagner and Andy Brown (eds), A Body of Work: An Anthology of Poetry and Medicine

Corinna Wagner and Andy Brown (eds), A Body of Work: An Anthology of Poetry and Medicine (London: Bloomsbury 2016) 532pp. £28.99 Pb , £95.00 Hb.  ISBN: 978-1472511812

Beginning with Wilfred Eastwood’s A Book of Science Verse (Macmillan 1961), there have been several anthologies of poetry and science, most notably Poems of Science, ed. John Heath-Stubbs and Phillips Salman (Penguin 1984), and A Quark for Mister Mark, ed. Maurice Riordan and Jon Turney (Faber 2000), but there has been only one concerned with poetry and medicine, Signs and Humours: The Poetry of Medicine, ed. Lavinia Greenlaw (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 2007). In its scope and its format, Corinna Wagner and Andy Brown’s A Body of Work is somewhat different from its forebears. Whereas the collections by Eastwood, Heath-Stubbs and Salman, and Riordan and Turney were aimed at the general anthology market, Wagner and Brown’s gathering seems to have the student in mind. It is physically a more substantial book than the others, and its selection of poems is much greater: 326 poems or extracts from longer poems, as against 112 in Eastwood, 215 in Heath-Stubbs and Salman, 101 in Riordan and Turney, and 100 in Greenlaw.  In addition to the poems, it also anthologises 68 prose extracts of ‘Medical Writing’.

The anthology is divided into eight thematic subsections: ‘Body as Machine’; ‘Nerves, Mind and Brain’; ‘Consuming’; ‘Illness, Disease and Disability’; ‘Treatment’; ‘Hospitals, Practitioners and Professionals’; ‘Sex, Evolution, Genetics and Reproduction’; and the inevitable closer, ‘Aging and Dying’.  Within each section, the poems appear first, presented in chronological order, followed by a shorter section of prose, usually around ten pages, also presented chronologically. Although the chronological ordering prevents the editors from making the kinds of artful juxtaposition that characterise some other poetry anthologies, the thematic sub-division means that certain echoes and sequences are foregrounded. In the ‘Nerves, Mind and Brain’ section an extract from Anne Finch’s ‘The Spleen’ (1701) is followed by one from Matthew Green’s poem of the same title (1737), and there follows a sequence concerned with mental illness. In the ‘Illness, Disease and Disability’ chapter, the idea of illness as a journey articulated in Simon Armitage’s ‘Salvador’ (2002) is visible in the two poems that follow, Julia Darling’s ‘Too Heavy’ (2003) and Kelvin Corcoran’s ‘The Ingliss Touriste Patient’ (2004). In the chapter on ‘Sex, Evolution, Genetics and Reproduction’, the subject matter of Hannah F. Gould’s ‘To the Siamese Twins’ (1832) is picked up in later poems by Eugene Lee-Hamilton (1894) and Robert Graves (1968).  Such cross-references greatly increase the pleasure of reading the collection. In many cases the subject-matter of the poems is echoed in the prose: the poems in ‘Consuming’ include Eavan Boland’s ‘Anorexic’ (1980) and an extract from Phillip Gross’s ‘The Wasting Game’ (1998); the prose includes an extract from William A. Hammond’s Fasting Girls (1879).

The scale of the anthology means that it encompasses a wide range of attitudes to medicine, illness, and the body. In some cases, the poems are detached commentaries on the authority of medics, as in Robert Southey’s ‘The Surgeon’s Warning’ (1799), a ballad narrative about the beneficiary of bodysnatchers becoming their victim.  Others, especially among the later poems, draw from first-hand experience; but as illness often renders strange the body, these are lyrics that are both intensely personal and peculiarly detached. In some cases, that detachment manifests itself as a detachment from unfamiliar names for illnesses and medications.  In other, lives are reduced to arrays of external objects, whether a patient’s clothes or the contents of a deceased person’s medicine cabinet.  In their Introduction, the editors comment briefly but suggestively on the specific powers of poetry in relation to medicine. They emphasise the power of poetry to isolate terminology: ‘the single word is brought sharply into focus; poetry distils, redefines and makes words confrontational’ (22). Their judgement is well formulated, though the anthology bears witness to the diverse ways that poetry can interact with medicine and with the body.

One of the most impressive and distinguished aspects of the anthology is the extent to which contemporary poets are represented. For many anthologists, practicalities concerning permissions and fees limit the inclusion of living and recent poets. Thanks to the publisher’s generosity, the editors’ persuasive powers (and those of their research assistant), and the reciprocal generosity of the poets, poems from the last forty years are plentiful.  By my estimate, half the poems are dated 1969 or later, and more than a third are from 1990 or later; the two most recent date from 2015. However, earlier periods are well represented: the earliest poem is dated 1635, and thirty five of them are seventeenth or eighteenth century; just over fifty are nineteenth century.  Of the twentieth-century poets, the selection is dominated by mainstream lyric: we have Armitage, not Armantrout; with the exception of Gael Turnbull, the British Poetry Revival and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are not represented.

The chronological centre of gravity of the medical prose is earlier: with the exception of William Carlos Williams’s ‘Of Medicine and Poetry’ (1948), none of it post-dates 1919. How this non-synchronisation arose, and whether it limits the value of the anthology from a teaching point of view, must remain matters of speculation. It is possible that more recent medical writing was deemed too technical for inclusion, though essayists like Oliver Sacks (who is quoted in the Introduction) would have fitted in without difficulty.

The sequencing of poems in chronological order within each section is to be welcomed, and will encourage readers to think about the relation of poetry to historical developments in medicine. It does however, place a burden on the editors to date the poems correctly: never a straightforward task, because a ‘Collected’ or ‘Complete’ poems will not always provide this information; and, even if the poem can be traced to the original collection, doing so does not provide a date of composition or of publication in a periodical.  ‘The Art of Healing’ by W H Auden (344) is given a date of ‘1976’, even though Auden died in 1973. The date is that of the first edition of Edward Mendelson’s edition Collected Poems; but given that Mendelson provides a date for the poem (May 1969), the approximation is disappointing. The date given to Dannie Abse’s ‘In the Theatre’, 1938, is the date of the incident it concerns, not the date of its composition; if Abse (b.1923) had written it in his teens, it would have been an even more remarkable achievement. It was first collected in Funland and Other Poems (1973), and his New and Selected Poems (2003) indicates that the poems in that collection date from 1967-72.  ‘He said it doesn’t look good’, the doctor’s prognosis at the start of a poem by Raymond Carver given the date of 1989, acquires strange unintended ironies when one learns that Carver had died in 1988 (it might look bad, doctor, but not so bad that I can’t write poems from the grave). ‘Parish Doctor’ by Sterling A Brown (1901-89) is dated to 1980, the date of his Collected Poems; but the volume in which it appeared, No Hiding Place, was one that Brown had first attempted to publish between 1932 and 1937. Given that the poem touches on the relation between folk medicine and official medicine in an African American community, knowing where the poem stands chronologically in relation to the Civil Rights movement is not a trivial issue.  Compared to the monstrous liberties with chronology that David Wheatley has noted in Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke’s anthology The Map and the Clock (Faber 2016), such problems might seem small; but chronological accuracy is a necessary condition for careful historical interpretation.

Of making annotations there is no end, especially in a field such as poetry and medicine, and in commenting on this aspect of the anthology I am aware that no approach to annotation will satisfy every reader.  As it stands, the provision of annotations is uneven.  Rightly, each poem is treated a self-contained unit – few people read anthologies in a linear sequence – so that there is a note on Aesculapius when he arises in Jane Barker’s ‘A Farewell to Poetry’ (25, n 1), and another when he appears in the anonymous ‘On the Dissection of a Body’ (30, n 11).  However, some poems are glossed more thoroughly than others: one of the more generously annotated, Keats’s ‘Ode on Melancholy’, has notes on Lethe, Wolfsbane, nightshade, Proserpine, and Psyche; but others with an equivalent density of unfamiliar material are not glossed. There are no notes about the poets, and in some cases a reader’s interpretation might change if the reader knew that the poet was a doctor or surgeon, or had studied anatomy, or suffered a particular medical condition. This issue arises with the first poem in the anthology, Barker’s ‘A Farewell to Poetry’: knowing nothing of Barker, I found myself asking in what sense she was leaving poetry and turning to anatomy. Similar issues arose in relation to W E Henley’s ‘Enter Patient’ (328), Walt Whitman’s ‘The Wound-Dresser’ (329), and Dannie Abse’s ‘In the Theatre’ (333). Knowing about Raymond Tallis’s medical background and his defence of realism might make a difference to how one reads his ‘In Memoriam Roland Barthes’ (1987). It might be argued that, from a pedagogical point of view, the exclusion of biographical material has potential benefits: it forces readers to concentrate on words and ideas, and allows the teacher to introduce additional information later. But, on balance, and even in the age of Wikipedia, fuller annotation would have been helpful.

As regards the text, the editors comment that they have made minimal interventions, correcting obvious printers’ errors and modernizing some archaisms. Given the scale of the endeavour, it is not altogether surprising that some typographical errors have crept into the text. Particularly confusing, on a first reading, are the subheadings that have been included in the extracts from Erasmus Darwin’s Temple of Nature, which are differentiated from the main text only by being placed in quotation marks. The first is separated by a paragraph break, the second is not, and the third is appended to the preceding paragraph. Italicization would have been a better choice. The provenance of the subheadings is not clear: the Bibliography suggests that the text is that published in London by Joseph Johnson in 1803, but the reproduction of that book which I have seen does not interpolate them. I did not check every poem against its source, but I noticed two small errors in the anonymous ‘On the Dissection of a Body’ (29-30), a missing full-stop at the end of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Paralytic’ (43), three errors in Matthew Sweeney’s ‘Artificial Blood’ (56), one in Jane Kenyon’s ‘Having it out with Melancholy’ (115), one in the extracts from Peter Reading’s C (206), one in W E Henley’s middle name (328), two in Mina Loy’s ‘An Aged Woman’ (469), one in Thom Gunn’s ‘Lament’ (482), and one in the last line of the last poem in the anthology, Jo Shapcott’s ‘The Deaths’ (494). The small errors in the text of Loy’s ‘Auto-Facial-Construction’ (37) suggest that the editors’ source may have been Roger Conover’s edition The Last Lunar Baedeker (Jargon 1982), and not The Lost Lunar Baedeker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1997) as stated in the Bibliography (where both the book-title and the name of the publishers are misspelled). It would be helpful if the publishers could distribute an erratum slip on their webpage, until such time as a corrected edition can be produced.

In many cases longer poems are represented through extracts.  The practice, acceptable in itself, requires the editors to represent the elisions accurately. Unfortunately the typesetting does not distinguish between authorial and editorial ellipses: in the extracts from Peter Reading’s C, the ellipses after ‘stink’ are authorial, but those after the second paragraph are editorial. Moreover, the reader of the anthology would not realise that in the original work – as reprinted in the Collected Poems (Bloodaxe 1995) – the two excerpts are separated by over thirty pages.

Anthologies of poetry and science have their dull moments. The ways that poetry interacts with science are not always suited to anthologies. Some poets touch science tangentially, deflecting away from barely registered ideas, or subtly incorporating a single piece of terminology. In anthologies that promise poems ‘about’ science, such subtlety can be a problem: to earn their place, poems have to engage explicitly with science, while more allusive relations are marginalised. One the evidence offered by the present anthology, with poetry and medicine it is different. The immediate connection to the body and to mortality means that poets write powerfully about particular situations or diseases, not about abstract and barely comprehended concepts. With supplementary annotations shaped for specific courses, A Body of Work could provide a valuable resource for teaching; but it is also an anthology that can be read for pleasure - albeit a troubled pleasure overshadowed by mortality.

Michael H. Whitworth, Merton College, Oxford