My intention is to share fresh poetry with anyone with the interest and patience to read it. You are welcome to post a comment at the bottom of this page.
I discovered the delight of writing poetry in 2004. I was still in practice then. One day at the office I thought I heard poetry in a patient’s conversation when he said, “Bitch is…we’re all close.” I didn’t know what to say. I thought the man had a gift of some kind that deserved recognition. But what could I say to him? How would you feel if your psychiatrist told you you were “speaking in poetry?” “Get a grip, Doc, you’re off on some tangent. Have some more Thorazine.” What was I thinking? Right time, wrong place. Or something like that.
I began to write down the poems I heard, many of them inspired by what sounded to me like patients’ gifts with the spoken word. No harm in that. I gradually grew a little more comfortable with the idea of being a poet myself, but I was shy about telling anyone else. Then one day a devoted patient I’d known for years asked what I was planning to do in retirement. I felt emboldened and decided to throw caution to the winds. Trying to sound as modest as possible, I shared my poetic aspirations. He looked stunned for a moment, but soon began collecting his thoughts, earnestly choosing his next words for what I sensed would be a wise, careful send-off destined to guide my future trajectory as a poet for years to come. As I waited for his benediction, he jabbed the air with his right index finger and burst out, “Hallmark, Doc, Hallmark!”
I could see now where my new vocation would take me. I began to dread the call from the pharmacist at Wayland Square CVS: “Hey Doc, we got a patient of yours in here creating a disturbance. He says he won’t leave until we locate your sensitivity cards.” I imagined the muffled guffaws of the pharmacy techs in the background. What was I getting myself into? Was this a fool’s errand?
Something kept me going, in spite of my fears. I knew poetry was supposed to be deep, and being in over your head is a daily experience for most psychiatrists. We are trained what to do in situations like that. Listen to the music, in the words of Leon Diamond, my wise residency director.
I related to a comment in Writer’s Almanac. Kathleen Jamie, the Scottish poet writes, “When we were very young, we were told that poetry is about voice, about finding a voice and speaking with this voice, but the older I get I think it’s not about voice, it’s about listening, listening with attention. I don’t just mean with the ear; bringing the quality of attention to the world.” Being receptive. Or something like that.
But I had to admit something else to myself. This word music felt undeniably comforting.
In hindsight, the quality of patient speech I was identifying as “poetic” in those early days was a soul quality, although this was not apparent to me at the time. As a boy, I had distilled my entire Sunday school education into one sentence: “The soul is real.” A grown-up would say “intrinsic.” To a boy the soul is obscure, but obscure in a valuable way. There was something comforting about knowing it was around. What happened to me in the office years later was I was beginning to register or hear soul speech, to feel into the immediacy and stunning beauty of souls, and to cobble together with poems the truths we souls were acknowledging in the moment.
Other practitioners, I’ve since learned, have described similar experiences. William Carlos Williams, M.D., in “Doctor Stories:”
“…over the years, a change gradually occurs…a new meaning begins to intervene…a new…more profound language…offers itself…poetry…what they have been trying to say…the poem which their lives are being lived to realize…And it is the actual words, as we hear them spoken…which contain it…there in fact…words…from which we must recover underlying meaning as realistically as we recover metal out of ore…the essence…seeking to be realized…a new face.” My italics.
Did you hear the we must? We must recover. Listen to William James, M.D., in “A Pluralistic Universe:”
“Since when, in this mixed world, was any good thing given us in purest outline and isolation?…Everything is smothered…The gold-dust comes to birth with the quartz-sand all around it, and this is as much a condition of religion as of any other excellent possession. There must be extrication [self-appropriation]; there must be competition for survival; but the clay matrix and the noble gem must first come into being unsifted. Once extricated, the gem [soul speech] can be examined separately, conceptualized, defined, and insulated. But the process of extrication cannot be short-circuited [without missing]…the more living divine reality…that empirical methods tend to connect men in imagination.” My italics.
Hear the must be? There must be extrication.
In case the mining metaphor is making your hands feel too gritty or your back ache, here’s Ralph Waldo Emerson’s genteel take in “Self-Reliance:”
“A [person]…should learn to detect and watch for that gleam of light which flashes across… [the] mind from within more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.”
Bitch is…we’re all close. Now how comforting is that? Close to living divine reality. Undeniably comforting.