The Hospital for Bad Poets

Hallman, J. C.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Jul-13-2009
  • Last revised: Jul-09-2009


Two months after he starts writing poetry, the narrator collapses. The maid finds him on the floor. An ambulance arrives at the scene. Two EMT's - Mike and Bob - check the condition of the novice poet. Their assessment includes the patient's orientation, his chief complaint, his favorite form of poem (the sonnet), and the last time he used iambic pentameter. Mike reads the poet's unfinished villanelle that remains stuck in a Smith Corona typewriter. The EMT deems it awful. The ambulance crew generates a list of possible diagnoses that includes an aneurysm in the language center of the brain and (more plausibly) writer's block. The duo decide that the narrator requires evaluation in the hospital for bad poets. All of their ambulance patients receive supplemental oxygen during transport. Every poet additionally gets a copy of verse by Rainer Maria Rilke to read during the trip.

The hospital for bad poets is a teaching hospital. A swarm of medical students participate in the evaluation of the narrator. His working diagnosis is "chronic acuteness." A young physician, Dr. Krupp, takes charge of the case. He also reads the narrator's incomplete poem and agrees with the opinion of Mike the EMT. The poem stinks. Dr. Krupp listens to the narrator's breath sounds and commands him to recite poetry during the examination. The physician announces, "Poetry is the equivalent of ventilation. Poets breathe for one another, they breathe for all of us" [p 147]. Dr. Krupp decides that the narrator's problem is serious enough to warrant hospital admission for one week's worth of observation. The doctor then scurries off to treat another poet whose situation is much more serious than the narrator's.


This sly story pokes fun at poets and health care professionals. It explores the phenomenon of creativity whether in the form of crafting a poem or establishing a medical diagnosis. It acknowledges the toll of writing and the value of poetry. Pain - emotional, spiritual, or artistic - seems unavoidable. A hospital for poets might not be so far-fetched. Readers are reminded that some of the world's most celebrated poets have been hospitalized: William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Hermann Hesse, Anne Sexton, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell.  Bob the EMT warns that "Poets can go south fast" [p 142]. The story points out just how hazardous to one's health writing poetry can be. After all, everyone is a critic.

Primary Source

The Hospital for Bad Poets: Stories (pp 139-150)


Milkweed Editions

Place Published

Minneapolis, Minnesota



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