A Psychiatrist and a Poet

December 8, 2007 at 5:42 pm

Brain and Perception

Commentary by Ron Charach, M.D., Toronto psychiatrist, poet, and essayist.

To be both a psychiatrist and a poet is either a dual calling or a double whammy, depending on what you choose to emphasize. Such a medical/literary hybrid has surely won the sweepstakes in the personal sensitivity department. I am often asked whether being a psychiatrist helps me to be a better poet, though the reverse question is asked less frequently, especially since I don't do 'poetry therapy' in my psychotherapy practice. Before answering the question, a little more wordplay on the dual title may be in order.

One raises fewer eyebrows if one says "I'm a psychiatrist who also writes poetry" than if one says, "I'm a poet who does psychiatry on the side." The obvious difference in job security and monetary status of the two activities might lead to offbeat explanations like, "I couldn't make a living as a psychiatrist, so I went into poetry for the money" or, "Poetry is my day job, but I do psychiatry out of love."

There haven't been many psychiatrists/poets writing in English, at least not to the point of publishing (as opposed to self-publishing) several books. In the United States, people like Richard Berlin and Ronald Pies spring to my mind. A few others are represented in the anthologies of world physician poetry, Blood and Bone and Primary Care, published by the University of Iowa Press.

The late/great American poet Robert Lowell had a psychiatrist - er, actually, he had cause to visit his mother's psychiatrist, Merill Moore- a man who penned verse in what he nicknamed his 'sonnetarium'(oooh) at the back of his New England home. In other languages, Sweden's Tomas Transtomer, who had a psychology background, saw patients, and specialized in writing about people on the brink of doing something truly desperate, or at least, transformative.

I started writing in deadly earnest in pre-adolescence, and entered many essay and poetry-writing competitions, usually getting an honourable mention or placing second or third, which only whet my appetite to try harder. After being a psychiatrist for the past 27 years and psychotherapist for the past 30, I would say that practicing the craft has given me a good ear for dialogue and monologue, for how people actually talk and think. Dream analysis has also sensitized me to the value of using dreams as bridges to more fully understanding people’s fears, preoccupations and goals.

Psychiatrists from the past whose work informs my own include Freud, whose main prize, the Goethe Prize, was in literature, not medicine, and the late Heinz Kohut, whose nearly unreadable books nevertheless are rich in their appreciation of the powers of the literary imagination and very rich indeed in their conception of the needs of a viable self. I also get a lot of tips from more prosaic theorists like Aaron Beck, who invented cognitive therapy.

Being a poet informs my work as a psychiatrist insofar as both callings focus intensely on language and its many layers of meaning.The mind is hard-wired to make and to understand metaphor, something the neuroanatomists have only begun to study. Many of my poems are about medicine in general and psychotherapy in particular, and I would refer the reader to rather amusing if vaguely unsettling pieces on such procedures as "MRI" and "Colonoscopy", both poems written from the perspective of the wary physician/patient who 'knows too much'.

Anyone who would like to see the many subjects which a psychiatrist/poet might take on is invited to look at my latest book, Selected Portraits, published this autumn by Wolsak and Wynn, which contains poems about relationships from my first six collections.

I would offer a caveat for those who want to join me in the dual calling. Being a psychotherapist is especially hard on the back, given the relatively fixed postures one must sit in for large portions of the working day. Being a writer can also be hard on the back; ask Philip Roth who often works at a stand-up desk. Poets, of course, have it easier than novelists, but the physical issues add another form of double jeopardy to the work.

Psychiatrists and psychoanalysts are often talent manques, men and women who are reluctant to come out from behind their therapeutic neutrality. They get few opportunities to assert themselves as people with strong opinions and viewpoints, at least not in the consulting room, where to do so might be inappropriate. I work a lot with adolescents, who have ‘automatic shit detectors’ and tend to appreciate frankness. Knowing I am a poet, other physicians often send me referrals who are actors, screenplay writers, even the occasional poet.

The patients I write about are composite creations, actual patients sometimes serving as springboards for fictional portraits that may include auto-biographical takes on the poet and his own family. It might sound overly cautious, if not downright paranoid to state, at the end of a book of poetry which everyone knows to be a work of fiction, "No character in this book is identical to any living person", but I've often been tempted to do exactly that. In the end, though, I find the first-person-singular voice to be very effective and collar-grabbing and am usually willing to run the risk of the reader's deciding that the views presented in the poem are identical to that of its creator. Consider it the third hazard of this unique double calling.