I went into medicine because I love poetry. Untaught poetry, anonymous poetry, not subject to fashionable academic adulation and dismissal. Medicine and its attendant sciences have been a sublime, though sometimes tragic education. Medical education enfolds the entire spectrum of creatures down to their molecular threads, somehow marvelously woven together. It refines every sense, hears hidden murmurs, notices small signs in the curve of blue-blushed fingernails. The art of medicine apprehends the dignity, pleasures, and grievous aspirations of different voices in their timing. If you listen.
A mother’s voice is the first call to consciousness in the fluid womb. Her heartbeat Iambe’s meter of your evolution. Her muffled syllables begin time. My mother had a beautiful voice, the perfect pauses of an actress mimicking various accents of the risen and felled world, its timbre a thimble of history. Shakespeare was the issue of the house. Watching Hamlet in public theatre at three, and sitting still for the first time in my life, I apparently told my father that yes, it was a great play because everyone got killed in the end (though it took too long for Hamlet to die). Is there enough time now for any such soliloquy? Twitter has time for vanity but not the bird.
For me, poetry is the voice that supersedes vanity. To concentrate exclusively on “American poetry” can ignore the vast expanse of immigrant sounds bearing punctuated rhythms or haunting, free-floating tunes. Music introduces the meaning, and carries languages both harsh and melodious, its premonitions understood fully only in retrospect. Tell me how you know the patient earth is sick or well in a short glance? By the combinatorial nature of poetry. A reason to memorize poems. To trace their fingerprints. Once part of our heritage together, with Charles Ives and spirituals around the piano on whatever instruments we shared at home.
As a physician I diagnose the visual patterns of disease, not race, not tribes (unless you consider rebel cells as tribes). I abhor selling by clique. Are you gay, womankind, of a certain age, colored or uncolored, correct Christian or pagan? Or are you merely, remarkably, human? Another limb of the natural world. As a reader, I want to know what you envision when you coax your children to sleep, begin courtly dances of seduction, or — witless and self-betrayed — prepare for another war.
So I try to read as widely as possible, to encompass the diverse world of the evocative word — often authored by unadvertised people(s), including the translations of the ancients and the dispersed. And they remain maximally contemporary, though not narrowly personal. Take “The Old Woman of Beare” on age (c. 800, tr. Brendan Kennelly):
I drank my fill of wine with kings,Their eyes fixed on my hair.Now among the stinking hagsI chew the cud of prayer.
As a neuroscientist, I also have come to recognize the brain’s need for a narrative of subliminal truth, a perception of the unpredictable unknown over which we have little control. Having been swallowed at fourteen by the stately pleasure dome of Xanadu down to its sunless sea. Riveted by the environmental and religious carcinogens of Blake (“How the chimney-sweeper’s cry / Every blackening church appalls”). Continuously delighted by the wide joy of Hafiz, first recited to me in 1966 by a who colleague as we walked the lavender hills of Tehran, our shadows smaller than Persian miniatures. Laughing at the spontaneous yelps of elation by scientists examining the first photos of nebula dying and being born. Now reading Haitian poetry (in slow French) and Emma Lazarus. Out loud. Also listening in the insomniac hours to the Poetry magazine podcasts, particularly Roberto Sosa and others, several times. Moondog too. Magical antidotes. What will I read tomorrow? More. Invasive perspectives. Spun in the womb of the universe.