A Psychiatrist and a Poet

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.

3 comments
  1. Ronald Pies MD

    Kudos to Dr. Charach for his article and his poems…and thanks for the kind mention, Ron. As for being a poet and a psychiatrist, I always think of Frost’s description of poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion”….then I remember why I am both a poet and a psychiatrist!–Best regards, Ron Pies

  2. Dr Vinay Kumar

    Dear Dr Charach

    I am a psychiatrist – poet from India. I write in Hindi. My one collection of Ghazals was published in 2004 and many poems in many magazines. I practice Psychiatry to feed me and my family and write poetry to feed my soul. I don’t carry any guilt for my selfish poetic endeavors. I think great saint and hindi poet Tulsidas who authored all time great epic Ram Charit Manas WANTAHSUKHAYA (to comfort his inner self) stands for tiny poets like me.
    Poetry is with me since I became capable of using language, I wrote my first verse when I was in std. three. To begin with I wrote on people and happenings around me. As I matured, found political contradictions more compelling.
    For last few years I have been able to sense poetry in my day to day psychiatric practice. I call this my personal Renaissance because this motivated me to bring out first mental health Hindi quarterly Manoveda Digest. I am trying to develop it as a home where Psychiatry and Literature both can reside as friends helping each other without losing their identities.

    For some time I am working on a long story poem Sunetra (Lady with beautiful eyes). The protagonist, a young lady, is a case of Paranoid Schizophrenia. Till date I have been able to pen 15 poems in this series. I hope it would be 25-30. It is in Hindi but Dr P K singh, Professor of Psy chiatry Patna Medical College Patna, Bihar, India, has translated two of them for Indian Journal of Psychiatry. You can find the on http://www.indianjpsychiatry.org/article.asp?issn=0019-5545;year=2008;volume=50;issue=2;spage=149;epage=150;aulast=Kumar.
    The first poem is Sunetra’s reaction to dulling effect of anti psychotic drugs and second is about her mother who is widow and her caregiver.

    (Please excuse me for my bad English.)

    The Non-Metallic Age

    Somnolence has spread and spilled all around,
    Day has shrunk to patches of dusky islands,
    Instead of returning unsolicited
    After unwelcome knocks on the closed windows,
    Sun now enters her room unhindered, unquestioned.
    But Sunetra’s eyes
    Remain ever-closed,
    Like the heavy shutters of a mega-shop.
    The sun-rays keep beholding her
    For long and long after,
    Until they return defeated, unrewarded.

    The somnolence fluid is spreading again, all-round
    Astride the first day-break island.
    Sunetra ruminates,
    What days are these?
    So dark and dusky,
    All faces are blurred.
    Fair ones have all blackened,
    All voices have blunted tones.
    Even ghostess-kids have
    Now hoarse and husky voice.

    My sensibility has strangely
    Become pachydermic.
    Is it a shield or a skin-cast?
    Mom, tell me
    When shall I come out of it?
    Ask your doctor,
    Promptly and dutifully
    Replies my mother.
    Doctor is even more diplomatic.
    Says, a little while more.

    Impatiently one day Sunetra shrieks.
    I can no more live like this.
    I want to first-hand-experience
    The sheen-n-shine of all objects around.
    I want to feel and hear
    The down-pouring sun-rays
    From the skies.
    I want to dance to the tunes
    Of metallic sounds.

    O’Lord,
    When shall it cease,
    The dampened and dusky
    Non-metallic age.

    And one day
    She stops all medicines.

    Sunetra’s Mother

    It is tough to be a mother.
    Tougher still is to mother a child.
    But toughest truly is
    To keep mothering a Sunetra.

    The flawless flow of life,
    Afloat for
    Twenty years and nine months.
    Can it really end so quietly?
    Insidiously, can
    What time wrote for years,
    Be proven wrong
    In a whimper?
    I am lost,
    Totally lost.
    My confidence is shattered.
    I lose faith,
    Both in pen and prose.

    Transition of a mother
    Is terribly tedious,
    Into Sunetra’s mother.
    No less than the surreptitious
    Sneaking-in of Schizophrenia.
    A fifty-year-old woman
    Becomes a dwelling
    With walls made of pooled-up courage,
    Windows closed to
    All contacts and coteries,
    Doors disinclined to welcome
    One and all,
    Inside she stands
    Immersed up to chin
    In pools of apprehension.
    Any slight movement
    Further threatens her nose.
    After all
    Her Mind,
    Which essentially she is,
    Cannot start swimming
    Like a fish
    In a flash.

    Mothering Sunetra
    Means
    A drowning mother,
    Trying to save
    Her drowning daughter,
    By over-inflating her lungs,
    Completely oblivious of
    Any possible rupture.

    Mothering Sunetra
    Also means
    Losing oneself completely,
    In the expedition
    Of trying to save
    A ‘meaning’
    That is just on the verge of
    Fading away,
    And living like
    Siamese-twins
    With your daughter.

    Sunetra’s world
    Hovers inside the courtyard
    Like a helicopter,
    With mother hanging
    All alone
    By the lone hope
    That surely her daughter
    Shall break out one day
    Of this crooked clamshell,
    And run
    And crawl on her knees,
    Sporting and smearing dust-n-sand
    Amidst a bunch of butterflies.

    Sunetra’s mother
    Personifies
    The ceaseless, tiresome, hard labor,
    To enable her to buy
    A ‘palanquin’ made of
    Light and color and melody
    For her daughter.

  3. Ron Charach MD

    Feb 1, 2010

    Thanks to Dr. Vinay Kumar for sharing his poetry. Pity I can’t read it in the original Hindi. Psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar writes articles in English, but remains an avid poet writing in his native Urdu as well as English.

    It’s generally true that the poet who translates a poet ought to have skills equal to the poet who wrote the original, or something gets lost in translation. Similarly, one’s skill in two languages ought to be equal in order to move a work from one language into another. I know that when I hear Dr Akhtar recite his poems in Urdu, I am amazed at how much more musical they are than his description of what they mean in English.

    Dr. Kumar’s project is fascinating and I hope he completes the work and brings it to its optimal form in both languages.

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