Poetry/Medicine: Two Sides, or Two Coins?

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
June 20, 2013
Comments 2

My earlier post regarding MFA Day Job–a new blog featuring publishing writers and poets who work outside of academia—was meant to start a conversation about the possible ways writers can earn a living.  MFA Day Job’s most recent post features the nonfiction writer/ psychiatrist Christine Montross.  She is the author of Falling into the Fire and Body of Work, both due out from Penguin Books later this year.  Subject-wise, Montross makes use of her doctor’s work in both books: Falling into the Fire is, in part, a chronicle of Moss’s early years as a psychiatrist, while Body of Work is described as “ a memoir of the relationship between a cadaver named Eve and a first-year medical student.”

In recent years, there has been a fair amount of attention given to writers who are also doctors. An article in Poets and Writers from 2009 compiles a list of both historical and emerging figures, including Anton Chekhov, Ethan Canin—the doctor, novelist, and short-story writer who is now on the writing faculty at the University of Iowa—and a host of newer writers.

The article also mentions the one historical doctor-poet many of us know: William Carlos Williams, a bard with a certain mythology, one that involves writing very spare and slender poems on prescription pads.  (Williams also wrote in most other genres: stories, novels, plays, essays, and translations.)  In contemporary times, many poetry readers have delighted in the work of C. Dale Young, whose poetry collections, among other subjects, all delve into what might be considered “doctorish” territories (anatomy, meditations on mortality, and the like).  Between his writing and full-time medical practice, Young also manages to be the poetry editor for an important and celebrated literary magazine: New England Review.

As a poet, I’m especially interested in the overlapping forces (or perhaps polar forces?) at work in the mind of doctor-poet.  On the one hand, at least from my outsider’s perspective, a doctor’s work and concerns—birth and mortality, the human and even, well, pain—seem like they easily overlap with some of the traditional lyric obsessions. But the pragmatic part of me is asking: don’t most doctors work themselves into exhaustion?  How does a body and brain working at that level of stress and specialization have the energy to put together a poem at the end of the day? Or the beginning, for that matter?   (And, as you may have heard, medical school as a full-time job. Medical residencies, for sure, and often the careers that follow, are sometimes more than a full-time job.)   I suppose they are no different from people who write while managing other kinds of jobs and careers, raising families, and the like: one makes sacrifices to find time to write, however limited, and works as hard as they can.

On a related note, Rattle produced one of my favorite poetry features a few years back: a themed issue from poets who are also nurses.  I would be excited to see what might happen if The Kenyon Review were to run an issue that also featured writing by health care professionals.  I wonder how many are out there, and what are they writing now?

ELR

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