Laureate’s lines of hope in the search for a cure for cancer

A poet’s prescription: Simon Armitage’s 51-word verse about the search for a cancer cure is etched onto a tiny pill

  • Poet Laureate Simon Armitage tackled subject of cancer research in 51 words
  • His poem Finishing It had to fit two sides of a pill measuring just 20mm by 10mm
  • Armitage was commissioned to write the verses about the cutting-edge science which it is hoped will one day turn cancer into a manageable disease 

Poet Laureate: Simon Armitage and the inscribed pill

It has often been said that poetry is a balm for the soul.

But in his latest work, the new Poet Laureate Simon Armitage has delivered just what the doctor ordered – by tackling the subject of cancer research. And all in just 51 words.

That might not sound a lot for such a hugely complex issue. Until you realise that the completed poem, entitled Finishing It, had to fit on two sides of a pill measuring just 20mm long by 10mm wide.

Armitage was commissioned by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) to write the verses about the incredible, cutting-edge science which it is hoped will one day turn cancer into a manageable disease.

His poem was inspired by the work the ICR will undertake in its planned £75million Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery, and reflects on the ambition, optimism and brilliance that form a part of the search for new treatments for cancer.

Armitage, 56, said: ‘Science and poetry are closer associates than many people assume, and it was exciting to work on a project that deals with cutting-edge medical research. 

The completed poem, entitled Finishing It, had to fit on two sides of a pill measuring just 20mm long by 10mm wide (pictured) 

Pictured: The remainder of the 51-word poem on the other side of the 20mm x 10mm pill

I can’t configure

a tablet

chiselled by God’s finger

or forge

a scrawled prescription,

but here’s an

inscription, formed

on the small white dot

of its own

full stop,

the sugared pill

of a poem, one sentence

that speaks ill

of illness itself, bullet

with cancer’s name

carved brazenly on it.

‘And like science, poetry is a “what if” activity, imagining outcomes and possibilities based on creative thinking. I liked the sense that poem and pill might collaborate to produce both a medical and emotional cure, and that something so minimalist could aim to bring down something so enormous and destructive.’

The former probation officer from Yorkshire also drew on the experience of an unnamed friend who was suffering from cancer and being treated at the Royal Marsden Hospital in south London.

Dr Olivia Rossanese, who will be head of biology at the ICR, said: ‘The poem beautifully shares our story and symbolises the hope of what’s to come, the message made more powerful by being engraved onto a pill that represents the kinds of treatment that we will be developing in the near future.’ The centre will see a new collaboration of hundreds of scientists from different disciplines come together to lead what they call an unprecedented ‘Darwinian’ drug discovery programme that aims to overcome cancer’s ability to adapt and evolve resistance to drugs.

The engraving was undertaken by specialist artist Graham Short, taking him five weeks of daily five-hour shifts in the dead of night to complete the work.

The ICR sent Mr Short, 73, around 80 replica pills, made from a gypsum-based powder. He estimates he went through about 30 before finally managing to inscribe the entire poem on one. 

Specialist artist Graham Short (pictured) was called upon to micro-engrave the words onto a ‘pill’ that represents the drugs the ICR scientists hope to discover

The height of each letter on the pill is about twice the thickness of a human hair

Who is Poet Laureate Simon Armitage?

Probation officer turned writer Simon Armitage, 56, was announced as the new Poet Laureate in May 2019.

The Yorkshire-born poet said he hoped he was not ‘judged on my identity’ as a white man after female British-Pakistani author Imtiaz Dharker turned down the role.

Mr Armitage succeeded Carol Ann Duffy, the only woman to have held the post, after the Queen approved his appointment for a fixed ten-year term.

He has a working-class background and was educated at a comprehensive school and polytechnic. He worked as a probation officer in Greater Manchester until 1994 before focusing on his poetry.

Mr Armitage was born in Marsden, West Yorkshire, and has published 28 collections of poetry. His poems are regularly anthologised and broadcast on radio and television.

Last year Mr Armitage called for the next Poet Laureate to be a writer ‘at home both in the library and in the wider world’, as well as someone well versed in the classics.

‘If you put the laurel crown on your head and you haven’t read the whole of Beowulf or the Iliad, or don’t know who wrote Lycidas, or can’t recite a poem by Sappho or Emily Dickinson, or can’t name a poem by Derek Walcott, then you are not worthy of the role,’ he wrote.

Yesterday, Mr Short said: ‘It was probably the most difficult job I have ever done – because the pills kept flaking. I tried everything to try and give me a hard coating, spraying them with super glue, lacquer and car paint, but none of it worked so I ended up doing it on the actual pill itself.’

The acclaimed micro-engraver, best known for adorning four of the new £5 notes with tiny portraits of Jane Austen which boosted their value to £50,000, works between midnight and 5am to avoid vibrations from traffic at his studio in Birmingham. 

He also takes beta blockers, potassium and magnesium to lower his heartbeat to 20 beats per minute, and wears a stethoscope at his workbench so that he knows when to engrave with an ultra-fine needle between heartbeats.

The height of each letter on the pill is about twice the thickness of a human hair. In each shift, Mr Short makes on average seven or eight cuts into the item he is engraving – enough, for example, to create a letter ‘F’ and a letter ‘E’. Mr Short said: ‘It’s an honour for me to work with the Poet Laureate – but from my point of view, I wish he’d done an even shorter poem!’ The poem contains 229 letters, five commas, four apostrophes and one full stop.

Armitage succeeded Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate in May, and this is his second poem since holding the post. His first was Conquistadors, which marked the 50th anniversary of the first crewed moon landing by astronauts from Apollo 11.

The engraved pill is to go on permanent display at the ICR’s new centre when it is completed next year. About £14million still needs to be raised for the project, which is currently under construction.

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