Centaurs, Ligers, Doctor-Poets, and Other Hybrid Breeds

Centaurs, Ligers, Doctor-Poets, and Other Hybrid Breeds

Guest Post by Jenna Le. Jenna Le has worked as a physician in Queens and the Bronx, New York City. Her first full-length collection of poetry, Six Rivers, was published by New York Quarterly Books in August 2011.


I am a poet by night; by day, I am gainfully employed as a physician. By no means does this confluence of traits make me unique. Though you may never have met one, doctor-poets are actually nowhere near as scarce as centaurs, ligers, or other hybrid breeds. William Carlos Williams is perhaps the best-known of our tribe, but our ranks have included many others, dispersed across continents and centuries. Dannie Abse, an aging Welshman with a gloriously musician-like ear, is one celebrated example. And Poetry magazine recently profiled Gottfried Benn, a mid-century German doctor-poet who in his simultaneously gorgeous and repulsive writings reminisced on various cadavers he had autopsied. Benn approaches this difficult subject with the same feelings of disorientation, alienation, and faint disgust that he applies elsewhere to unrelated topics such as modern courtship and European nightlife.

Convention has it that all true poets are La Bohème types, living in dignified poverty, unwilling or unable to hold down a “respectable” job. It is this firsthand knowledge of poverty, you could argue, that gives poets the worldliness that makes them wise. Even more important than firsthand knowledge of poverty, though, is lack of respectability. It is the stereotypical poet’s lack of respectability that puts him at liberty to attack societal institutions with absolute honesty, without fear of reprisals at the workplace or elsewhere.

According to time-honored stereotypes, then, doctor-poets are an impossibility, a contradiction in terms.  When I first embarked on my current career path, thoughts like these often kept me awake at night, and it was only mildly comforting to read William Carlos Williams’s thoughts on the matter, as spelled out in Chapter 2 of his Autobiography:

It was money that finally decided me.  I would [be a doctor], for I was determined to be a poet; only medicine, a job I enjoyed, would make it possible for me to live and write as I wanted to.  I would marry, have children, and still write, therefore, to write.  I would not court disease, live in the slums for the sake of art, give lice a holiday.  I would not ‘die for art,’ but live for it!  [I would] beat the game and be free…”

When I first read this passage, I wondered, “What kind of freedom does he mean?” In pursuing a medical career at the same time that I am pursuing a literary career, am I purchasing economic freedom at the price of creative freedom? Even now, as I’m on the brink of publishing my first collection of poems, I don’t have a clear answer to this question.

Being a doctor-poet, I think, requires a special brand of recklessless, since the risk of incurring reprisals at the workplace is very real. In interviews, the contemporary doctor-poet Rafael Campo frequently talks about how he has been persecuted at his workplace for writing poems that deal frankly with such taboo topics as homosexuality.  And yet, despite the risks involved, Campo courageously persists at what he does, approaching both of his chosen professions with truthfulness, integrity, and even optimism:  “I’m hopeful in the end that we’ll have room for all the storytellers in medicine—not just the Nuland’s and Sacks’s and Remen’s, but also those who speak honestly and openly from outside the mainstream.” Time will tell whether Campo’s rosy outlook is prophecy or just wishful thinking.

[Image: Liger at Novosibirsk Zoo, Novosibirsk, Russia. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]

Malcolm Gladwell live | How to re-examine everything you know

Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to your calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo


Keep reading Show less

Humans evolved for punching, study confirms

University of Utah research finds that men are especially well suited for fisticuffs.

Image source: durantelallera/Shutterstock
Surprising Science
  • With males having more upper-body mass than women, a study looks to find the reason.
  • The study is based on the assumption that men have been fighters for so long that evolution has selected those best-equipped for the task.
  • If men fought other men, winners would have survived and reproduced, losers not so much.
Keep reading Show less

To be a great innovator, learn to embrace and thrive in uncertainty

Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.

David McNew/Getty Images
Personal Growth
Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was America's first female self-made millionaire.
Keep reading Show less

Study: Private prisons result in more inmates, longer sentences

The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • After adopting strict sentencing laws in the '80s and '90s, many states have turned to for-profit prisons to handle growing prison populations.
  • A new study in Labour Economics found that privately-run prisons correlate with a rise in incarceration rates and sentence lengths.
  • While evidence is mixed, private prisons do not appear to improve recidivism or cost less than state-run facilities.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Videos

    The art of asking the right questions

    What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast