I met poet, neurosurgeon, and art critic Michael Salcman five years ago. As a CityLit board member, Michael initiated the Harriss Poetry Prize and was its first judge. When I won the inaugural contest, publisher Gregg Wilhelm asked me whether I’d like feedback from the judge. I received more than feedback. Michael became a mentor, friend, and colleague. Little Patuxent Review has benefited immensely from his work as our art consultant.
Poetry in Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness, and Healing, represents the integration of Michael’s three major areas of expertise: medicine, poetry, and fine art. But the book also reflects his generosity. Its pages include luminaries of Western literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickinson; and modern poets who place their unflinching gaze on the body: Linda Pastan, Lucille Clifton, Stanley Plumly; side by side with poets from our local community: Shirley Brewer, Clarinda Harriss, Jennifer Wallace.
The book represents six years of compiling, curating, and organizing, but it also speaks to Michael’s lifelong love of poetry. He is, after all, part of an honored tradition of physician-poets who engage in two healing arts: medicine and poetry.
Shovan: This anthology represents several years of work. Would you describe its genesis?
Salcman: For years and years when I would see a poem by Emily Dickinson or by Anne Sexton that was about illness or about doctors, I would put it in the drawer because I was fascinated by their opinions about illness and doctors. Gradually these favorite poems piled up.
Shovan: You were encouraged by the poet Thomas Lux, whom you worked with at Sarah Lawrence’s summer writing program.
Salcman: I started going every year for ten years [beginning in 1998]. Tom would kid me that I was the only published poet who happened to be a brain surgeon… I told him I wrote poetry in order to get away from medicine but Tom would always greet me and ask, “So, have you written any medical poems this year?” Finally he started telling me, “You know, you’d be the perfect person to do an anthology about doctors and diseases.” It felt like a challenge.
Shovan: The anthology isn’t limited to modern medicine or modern poetry. How did you go about selecting poems for a book that covers hundreds of years of Western literature?
Salcman: First, I went through every volume in my poetry library page by page. Of course, I wanted the widest range. I wanted things by non-physician poets, people writing about their own illnesses, people who were parents of patients…poets like Blake and Poe who used the metaphor of medicine and illness to write social commentary.
Then I went through the major online sites: the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, Poetry magazine, all of them. People are surprised when I tell them that if you go on any of these sites, medicine, sickness, and health are major themes, major topics.
Shovan: Past anthologies of medical writing have had a more contemporary focus, or have been limited to doctor-poets. How does Poetry in Medicine differ from those books?
Salcman: I thought that it was time for a book that put together the very best poems on the subject no matter who wrote them, from the beginning of the Western tradition to contemporary times. My major criteria were literary excellence and the topic covered by the poem.
Shovan: I know you worked with your editor at Persea on refining the hundreds of poems you collected. Together, you came up with the wonderful thematic groupings for each chapter. The process took six years overall. What were some highlights of working on Poetry in Medicine?
Salcman: To begin with, Michael Collier’s Foreword is the most beautiful and elegant essay. His sensitivity as a poet is just amazing… And it came to him to start the foreword with a discussion of a great Eakins painting [“The Gross Clinic”] and carry the discussion from art to medicine and on to my life as a poet.
Once we had the physical book, I’ve been just really pleased with it. As an art writer and art collector I’m so proud and happy to have the other great medical painting by Eakins [“The Agnew Clinic”] on the cover, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. The book ended up as a dream project.
Shovan: There’s a push in current poetry to use fresh, specific language. I’ve read poems that seem to draw from medical textbooks in their vocabulary. What do you think of this type of realism?
Salcman: The language of science—of which medicine is a part —it’s both a science and an art— creates a fresh vocabulary for both poets and writers, but one has to be careful if one is interested in the music of the poem… Medicine is filled with nouns and not with verbs, whereas a poem seeks a good balance of both and needs to avoid polysyllabic Latinate words.
There’s nothing more real than the body and its complaints and the fate we all share. You can use medical terms or anatomical terms in a way that’s very mysterious.
When Dickinson writes, “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs,” it’s a terrific example of using simple medical terms to enrich a poem. When she describes the stages of hypothermia she leaves out the word “coma” in favor of “chill” and “stupor,” which are more everyday terms.
Shovan: The poet and the physician both have to be excellent observers. Talk about the up swell of humanities courses for medical students. How do they benefit the doctor? The patient?
Salcman: These courses are also called Narrative Medicine. At Columbia, for example, they take medical students to the great museums of New York and work on their powers of observation by looking at paintings… There are many courses that use short stories and poems. I think these courses are valuable in improving the empathy and sensitivity of the young physician as well as observational acuity.
Shovan: You are part of a great, but small circle of poets who are also physicians. If we look at stereotypes, the doctor is viewed as the scientist, driven by logic, but absent of the empathy we were just discussing. The artist, on the other hand, is viewed as a romantic figure, driven—and sometimes driven insane—by emotion.
Salcman: These stereotypes are based on the traditional battle of the two cultures. I responded very negatively to C.P. Snow’s famous book The Two Cultures. It argued that the West was all about the humanities, warm and fuzzy; the East was all about engineering and physics, which would take over the world. And that these two cultures spoke in mutually incomprehensible languages.
I have never believed that the arts and sciences were opposed to one another. Artists and scientists seek different types of truths, but their working methods are often similar and the objects they produce, certainly in the visual arts and in science, are gradually starting to resemble one another. Through great artists we first suspected that there were multiple visual systems in the brain, separately devoted to color, movement, and form. Calder explored movement, Matisse color, and Mondrian form to maximally stimulate the brain.
This back and forth between how and why we respond to artworks and how we create artworks I consider just one more piece of evidence that art and science spring from the same creative urge and use a similar logic.
Shovan: So, how does poetry inform medicine?
Salcman: Who else sees us in our most painful and intimate moments but doctors and poets? Because of breast cancer, women and women poets became very concerned with body image and the whole issue of whether they remained women after mastectomy. The number of great poems about breast cancer, such as those by Alicia Ostriker and Lucille Clifton’s “Lumpectomy Eve,” is truly amazing. Women patients and the poet friends of patients have really added something to our sensitivity in regard to the body: that we are not just pieces of meat, that we’re not just animals. As a result students of medicine should think of it as something of a holy occupation.
Shovan: In “Poetry in Medicine” we can see how the doctor-patient relationship has developed over time.
Salcman: There was almost a 200 year period in which people like Moliere and Dryden were incredibly sarcastic about doctors and about medicine. Samuel Johnson, who wrote a lovely poem about his deceased doctor friend was an exception—this poem is mentioned in my Introduction. Today doctors and patients enter into a range of person to person contacts beyond their traditional roles. Most poems have been kinder to the doctor in the modern era than they have been to the hospital. The hospital is often unfairly portrayed as the place one goes to die, as in poems by Cavafy and Baudelaire. I think a lot of the poems in the Anthology are complimentary in the way that a sophisticated thinker might look at a physician… in a nuanced, careful way. After all, the doctor isn’t perfect, but he’s what we’ve got and we’re all in this thing together, trying to deal with our ultimate mortality.
Online Editor’s Note: You can hear Dr. Salcman read from his Anthology on June 26 at Zü Coffee in Annapolis from 6 to 8:30 pm. He’ll also participate in a Little Patuxent Review reading at the Miller Branch of the Howard County Public Library on October 20.