Poetry as a Tool for Raising Awarness, Healing, and Bringing the Sickle Cell Community Together

The Power of Poetry: Sickness Through the Eyes of the Sufferer

Poetry is an extraordinarily powerful art form. It affects the writer, reader, and listeners in profound ways—both physically and psychologically.

According to a study conducted by Eugene Wassiliwizky at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Department of Language and Literature, the cathartic nature of poetry, either written or spoken, by one who suffers from pain can show the world their personal experience of suffering.

This allows others to interpret how the writer/speaker feels and potentially make connections to their individual experiences of suffering, which can provide a sense of relief and belonging. 

“Sickle Cell”: Poetry Empowering the Pained

“Sickle Cell” by Jasmine Bailey, a spoken word poet, is—in essence—a narrative of all those who have suffered from ailments that cause pain, agony, discouragement, helplessness, and a sense of discrimination. 

Bailey’s strong authority over her imagination, and ability to spark imagery within her listeners, enable her to paint a detailed picture illustrating the impressive resilience and power of an ordinary man in the face of suffering. She leaves her audience feeling empowered, ending on an optimistic note that proves the strength of her spirit, despite having overcome so many challenges. 

The cathartic narrative or poem, when written or spoken by the anguished person, encourages others to say, write, or otherwise artistically represent a personal interpretation of their suffering. It is an invitation to others to share their pain in exchange for consolation from others who share similar experiences.

Sickle Cell: A Health Care Challenge for People of Color

Sickle cell is a genetic mutation; however, it is a disease that primarily affects people of color. 

Bailey’s poem highlights how the systems of oppression are deeply rooted, especially among those with genetic disorders. Furthermore, racial disparities exist within the health care system, making it difficult for blacks and others to access the same level of health care available to other non-minority groups.

Sickle cell is considered an invisible illness. However, the word “sickle” is often symbolic of lifelessness, weakness, or death. Even the grim reaper is known for wielding a scythe, which is, essentially, a larger-size version of a sickle used to harvest crops. When one suffers from sickle cell, their blood is unable to flow freely, silently blocking blood flow to parts of the body. It is a silent affliction that can cause excruciating pain.

Spoken Word: An Intergenerational Gift of Healing

Spoken word has been passed down from generation to generation throughout history. Styles and cultural shifts have changed it over time, but the fact remains that poetry and spoken word is a gift that helps human beings sort out their experiences and emotions. It allows them to share deep—and sometimes painful—feelings with others, make personal connections, and heal through shared suffering or perseverance over adversity. 

Even in biblical literature, the story of creation begins with the emergence of light through the word of God. If the spoken word is our true essence of emerging as light into darkness, then can it be a tool to shine a light on sickle cell disease? I believe it can. Spoken word can function as a powerful device to raise awareness of this rare and invisible affliction, giving it the worldwide attention, understanding, and research it deserves.

Dr. Patricia Smith, academic, educator, and four-time USA National Poetry Slam champion once stated, “Poetry starts to breathe only when it hits the air.” It is true, for it is only when poetry is released into the world that it sends its message and becomes an instrument for change.

Spoken Word Poetry: Working for Change, Then and Now

The truth is that spoken word, even as we know it today, has been around for it can be traced back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, through the Black Arts and Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and still exists today as a means of self-expression, reaching others with important messages, and achieving empowerment.  

The use of oral literacy and performance to demand greater attention for systematic oppression, and to demand change is deeply rooted in the African American culture. 

The Power of “Sickle Cell” as a Spoken Word Poem

Bailey begins “Sickle Cell” with a direct speech. She is a speaker tasked with facing the public to preach and explain. While this is a one-way dialogue, it bears the weight and strength of the countless voices and emotions of those who are suffering.

The poem opens with a discussion about the pain caused by sickle cell disease, using physical pain as a metaphor for the suffering—physical and emotional—that is faced on many different levels. She mentions the many varied sizes of the needles used in treatment and testing, which symbolize the instruments used for treating the sickness. 

Bailey seems to offer a contradictory statement in her representation of the poking of needles across the vein. In the medical profession, sympathy is secondary because ordinary physical pain is of primary importance to healthcare workers and medical professionals. 

Consider the lines, “What happens when all you know is pain, when you watch as they stick 18-, 22-, and 24-gauge needles into your vein, poking across guard tissue like it’s no issue.” 

The lyrics capture the standard treatment routine for sickle cell disease, making several references to blood procedures and various sized needles. Healthcare workers are merely treating the physical disease, with little concern for how the disease—and treatment—makes the patient feel physically and emotionally. They are merely there to do their jobs without giving the much-needed emotional support many patients would benefit from while undergoing such treatments. 

The blood from the speaker is lifeless, however, it is this lifelessness and “dying” blood that causes the cyclical cycle of pain endured by sickle cell patients. We also get a sense of the uncomfortable experience of needles sliding in and out the epidermis, with no one there to care. 

The Heartbeat of “Sickle Cell”

In saying, “Apathetic hands fishing across guard tissue like it’s no issue,” Bailey emphasizes the syllable structure, “fishing, tissue, issue.” The sounds and emphasis she puts on each word generate in the listener a physical feeling of needles poking and fishing through veins. It is this powerful use of lyrical beats and emphasized words that give the poem its own heartbeat—a rhythm and life of its very own carried with the tone of her voice.

Impressive Rhyming and Medical Jargon Paint a Detailed Picture

Bailey uses impressive rhyme schemes while highlighting medical jargon to paint a picture of treatment. She drops metaphors that relate to her own experience, which demands attention and facilitates understanding by listeners. For example, she highlights the problematic nature of weather as a trigger for pain in saying: 

“The weatherman is irrelevant when the forecast predicts rain… Pain is more infinite than eternity and currently that appreciating the value of this medical currency takes its toll on the patient, so I’m growing impatient.”

Her use of irony is felt within the juxtaposition of the concepts of pain and money. Bailey implies that pain is merely a commodity in medicine. Nonetheless, this creates more stress on the longsuffering. Being a patient is irrelevant when all that seems to matter to others is money. The homophones and words she uses—patients and impatience—also imply that she is sick and tired of the redundancy of sickness and treatment. 

Electric Rhyme Provides a Pulse and Tells a Story

“Because every person who judges me isn’t remotely close to relating, got my 18-year-old logic debating the prospect of new medication surgical incision making decision making into my left chest, but you offer no advice as you say I have to live with that. Live with the scapula cutting three inches deep into my reality, a port being placed into my heart.” 

Again, the skilled use of rhythm and a strong focus on sound gives the poem an electric pulse, offering breadth and a greater depth of understanding of sickle cell disease. Bailey uses sensory descriptive words to generate empathy and paint vivid imagery of the port procedure and emphasize the constant medical decisions faced by sickle cell patients. 

Bailey’s words make the patient appear bound and silent by sickle cells, voice and opinion irrelevant when making treatment decisions, and ultimately quality of life. She ends her narrative with similes that oppose one another. 

“I sit and watch other people success, I try my best, but I still fail, it’s like being blind in life, and I still can’t read brail, living on earth and feeling like its hell, like putting my ambitions up for sale, this disease my highest bidder, I’m being forced into complacently but when the devils facing me, I remember God has my back.” 

Bailey ends the poem with slant rhymes, and the rhythm allows the poem to move; the sickle cells are felt, heard, and seen through the beautiful narrative.

The speaker is blind in hell, helpless. However, a higher power is guiding her. The optimistic note and a sense of surrender before God is a sign that the speaker remains hopeful and confident between the pain and struggles of facing this disease and its treatment. 

Poetry Gives a Voice to the Unheard and Unseen

The poem is relatively close to conventional speech patterns. Bailey’s narrative truly gives voice to the invisible malady of sickle cell disease. Poetry can act as a powerful tool and spoken word poetry gives a voice to the unheard and the unseen—such as sickle cell disease. Through poetry, experiences can be shared, learned from, and a sense of community and healing can be found for those who face similar obstacles to one another. Truly, poetry can act as a healer and a consoler. 

How do you feel about poetry or spoken word as a tool for spreading awareness about issues? Do you think it is effective? 

Do you think poetry can connect people with shared experiences and generate a sense of healing? Let us know your thoughts about spoken word in the comments. 

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