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A Poignant Film About Life, Death and Poetry

Rarely, in movies, will you find poetry mentioned, let alone made an integral part of the story. The HBO movie, "Wit," directed by Mike Nichols, and based on the stage play by Margaret Edson, stands apart not only in it's intimate and unflinching portrayal of a woman dying of cancer, but also in its poignant exploration of the relationship between poetry and life--and death.

The story, which mostly takes place within a hospital setting, centres around the final months in the life of a woman, professor of English Literature, dying of ovarian cancer. Professor Bearing, an aloof and intellectually uncompromising teacher and scholar of the works of poet, John Donne, now physically and spiritually isolated, is forced to face and reassess her own life. The fortitude and anguish of Professor Bearing is beautifully realized in all its subtleties by Emma Thompson, leaving you convinced that the actor and the character are one and the same person. The clinical encounters with emotionally sterile medical doctors, and the routines of testing and prodding Dr. Bearing undergoes, at the hands of disinterested care providers--save for one, her nurse--capture perfectly the dehumanizing experience of being a patient in a hospital, in which the treatment becomes more important than the person.

For the poet and the reader of poetry, this movie is of special interest in the questions it asks about the value of poetry in life. This theme takes shape as Dr. Bearing recollects her literary introduction, as student, to the poem, "Death, Be Not Proud," by John Donne. In this beautiful poem, Donne, in his audacious address to Death, tries to persuade himself, as much as the reader, that Death is but a fleeting interlude between Life and Eternity--a small, insignificant blip in the grand scheme of things:

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

As Dr. Bearing lies in bed dying, contemplating her life, seeing in the detached manner of the medical doctor monitoring her treatment, the same emotional walls she had built around her own life, she is confronted with the inadequacy of intellectual abstractions about death, when death becomes a looming reality. Her intellectual pride and the wit of Donne mean nothing to her now. All she wants is an act of "kindness" from others--something she had denied her own students in her steadfast demand for academic excellence.

The great irony of all literature, not just poetry, is that it is never more than "about" life. Life in the abstract. And ultimately, while literature can teach us things about life, it can never replace it. Perhaps it is this realization of the limits of poetry, which led the poet, Philip Larkin, to comment that beyond the age of twenty-five, "all poetry seems more or less unsatisfactory," except one's own poems. He went on to elaborate that with age "experience makes literature look insignificant beside life, as indeed life does beside death." Professor Bearing learned a lesson too late, one which literature did not teach her: that art should never be a substitute for life.

I highly recommend this movie to all poetry lovers, medical students, and those who care about humanity.

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