Poet-Psychiatrist Practices Healing Art of Narrative Medicine

February 21, 2017
Owen Lewis

Photo by Susan Ennis

Owen Lewis is nothing if not prolific. He wrote poetry and novels as a child and young man, and at age 23 created a multimedia poetry/music work called New Pictures at an Exhibition, which was reviewed by The New York Times in 1972.

As a clinical professor of psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, which is affiliated with Columbia University Medical Center, he has produced 23 scholarly articles, one textbook and numerous textbook chapters with titles such as Child Abuse & Neglect and Integrated Psychodynamic Psychotherapy with Children.

Then, about eight years ago, “all of a sudden, my writing took on a life of its own,” he said. “I didn’t start to write poetry again as much as poetry found me.”

Lewis has since published three books of poetry, with a fourth, Marriage Map, due out this winter. He has won several poetry awards including, last year, an international prize for a poem about his first-year students. His winning submission for the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, At Tribeca’s Edge, was one of more than 1,000 entries from 40 countries.

At Tribeca's Edge

By Owen Lewis

This evening, I walk to the water where the Hudson opens
itself to the sea, and the sea with its rough cross-currents
is in the air and in the light—the light spectacular, clear
illuminates the buildings of Newark across the water-way
with gold. The shimmering gold at their backs, they gather
to watch the harbor—the skiffs, prow-high, skip like kids
on a great lawn, a run-away pair braid ribbons of bridal white.
What will I tell my colleagues, gathering in a nearby auditorium?

I am thinking of my students, this first evening of Autumn,
young doctors eager with learning, still saddened by the sick.
The best are afraid. They’ve heard their voices tired, darkened
and hoarse. A ferry glides by, its wake spilling the embankment,
so close it seems we must hitch a ride, step in—and the light
between the distant buildings prying free, the sails opening with light.

Watch Lewis recite this poem.

The award was created in 2009 and invites submissions from medical professionals, on the idea that poetry covers the full range of human experience, sickness and health included. The poem was reprinted in the 2016 issue of Reflexions, the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons literary journal.

“Poetry and medicine share a deep concern for human life and the conditions of life,” said Lewis. “Where medicine heals through cure, poetry heals through inspiration.” He won £1,000, and flew to London to recite his work at the awards ceremony last year.

Not surprisingly, Lewis teaching at Columbia’s medical school includes narrative medicine classes, which lie at the crossroads of medicine and the humanities. A requirement for all first and second year medical students, these classes are designed to establish listening and reflection as clinical skills. Students in these classes read poetry, short fiction and creative nonfiction and write responses to them.

There is also an intensive six-week course for second-semester students, organized by art form. Lewis will be teaching a poetry-intensive section in the spring.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Lewis joined Columbia in 1985 as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. In the early 1990s, he had the opportunity to work on what became an eight-year project, funded by the Open Society Foundation, studying child abuse services in Eastern Europe. He helped to train 100 professionals who in turn were able to train over 20,000 more. “To see real and immediate societal changes emerge from one’s teaching and training has to be one of the most exciting experiences of a lifetime,“ he said.

Lewis cites several poets as influences on his work. William Carlos Williams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1963, a practicing pediatrician for most of his life, “attempted to really capture contemporary language in his poetry,” Lewis said. Seamus Heaney “could write poetry that encompassed an entire spiritual world.” Lewis loves the work of Wallace Stevens for his elegance of language and Edward Hirsch for his emotional honesty.

“When I listen to poetry, I’m listening with my psychiatrist’s ear but I’m also listening with a poet’s ear,” said Lewis. “One may be more prominent, but they’re both in the room.” He added, “teaching allows me to bring all of this together simultaneously.

—By Gary Shapiro