There has been little research into poetry-based medical education. Few studies consider learners' perceptions in depth. To explore general practice registrars' (GPRs) perceptions of two poetry-based sessions. GPRs in one general practice vocational training scheme experienced two poetry sessions. In one, the facilitator selected poems; in the other, poems were chosen by registrars. Poems were read and discussed, with emphasis on personal response. Data were obtained through in-depth semi-structured interviews with six registrars. Interviews were audiotaped, transcribed and analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis. Identification of individual ideas and shared themes enabled exploration of the registrars' experiences. Registrars described how poetry helped them explore emotional territory. They recognized a broadening of education, describing how poems helped them consider different points of view, increasing their understanding of others. Vicarious experience, development of empathy and self-discovery were also reported. Participants speculated on how this might impact on patient care and professional practice. Facilitator-selected poems provided variety and ambiguity, provoking discussions with clinical relevance. Learner-selected poems enabled involvement, self-revelation and understanding of peers and developed emotional expression. These registrars reported difficulties expressing feelings in the culture of science-based medical training. Poetry sessions may provide an environment for emotional exploration, which could broaden understanding of self and others. Poetry-based education may develop emotional competence. The participants recognized development of key skills including close reading, attentive listening and interpretation of meaning. These skills may help doctors to understand individual patient's unique experience of illness, encouraging personalized care that respects patients' perspectives.