Post Road Magazine #22

Poet, Heal Thyself

Camille T. Dungy

At eighteen, I matriculated at Stanford University with the same ambition as a third of all college freshmen: to enter medical school after graduation and become a physician. My father was a physician, and I'd grown up around medical schools. Also, I enjoyed dissection and basic chemistry. I liked discovering how things fit together and came apart. I was fairly decent at memorization, having spent years training on the piano and clarinet, so I could hold the names of the body's individual components in my head: fibula, tibia, patella, femur. . . . I'd studied Spanish, so I wasn't daunted by Latin medical terminology. I tended not to flinch if I had to make people cry. I knew that sometimes pain comes before progress. I wanted to help people. I wanted to direct them to better, healthier ways of living. My career path seemed clear.

I happily registered for the pre-med core and looked forward to those classes. Still, I'd never had any intention of locking myself up in the science library all hours of the day and night away from novels and poetry. I'd chosen Stanford partly because I could take plenty of literature classes alongside my pre-med courses. So winter quarter of my sophomore year I took Molecular Biology, Organic Chemistry, and Reading and Writing Poetry.

Every morning I woke to our dorm room's ringing phone, my roommate's mother. "Hello, Mrs. Kirkendall. Here's Ellen," I would say. Then I'd dress, gather my books, and head out to classes. In O-Chem I took notes, but a look at my notebook will reveal poems darkening nearly every margin. The story wasn't much different in Molecular Biology. (Margin: an amount by which something is or is not won.) These were classes in which I needed to be paying complete attention, but my mind wasn't focused — it was possessed by the joy of manipulating words. (Rapt: from the Latin raptus, meaning seized.) In Reading and Writing Poetry, I was rapt. All I wanted to do was read and write poetry, read and write poetry, read and write poetry some more.

Then came the day I attended a study section for Organic Chemistry and a young woman, bless her curious heart, asked a question that wouldn't be relevant for another couple of weeks. I said to myself, "I don't care I don't care I don't care shut up I don't care I don't care." And then I proceeded to grow nauseous. So nauseous I had to leave the classroom and run outside for air. So nauseous I decided it was time to leave that class entirely. You see, I pride myself on being intellectually curious, and I was completely incurious about the building blocks of the career path I'd always thought I'd follow. All I wanted to do was read and write poetry, read and write poetry, read and write poetry some more. I wanted to learn everything I could about how to put together a sonnet. I wanted to master the villanelle. I was enthralled by the work of Anne Bradstreet and John Berryman and Audre Lorde and William Blake. I was thrilled about assonance and anaphora, enjambment and ekphrasis, but I could care less about isomers and hydrocarbons. I'd never been so incurious about one thing and drawn in by another. I knew, at that moment, I would drop my pre-med core and concentrate on my English/Creative Writing major instead.

A few hours later came Mrs. Kirkendall's evening call. "Hello, Mrs. Kirkendall. Here's Ellen," I said, and passed the handset to my roommate. When she was off the phone Ellen said, "Mom wants to know what happened to you today. She says she's never heard you sound so happy." Four words were all it took to convey the satisfaction I felt with my decision.

My ambition to be a physician was tied to my desire to help lead people to improved ways of living. Didn't the poems I was reading work toward a similar goal? Reading Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, I had to grapple with questions of morality and do a bit of research about the Industrial Revolution, both exercises in self-improvement. Anne Bradstreet expanded my knowledge of colonial American life. Audre Lorde modeled compassion and political engagement. John Berryman embodied a hundred cautionary tales. The work of all of these poets improved me, and they didn't flinch from the pain they delivered in the process of making me better.

As for the memorization skills and etymological knowledge required for my chosen profession, it's easy to see how a life in poetry would provide years of fun with English's Latin roots, and countless opportunities to draw upon the power of recall. Why, just yesterday, I was scheduled to present an outdoor reading. It turned out to be a loud, windy day, and the sun was alarmingly bright, so like Robert Frost at Kennedy's inauguration, I ditched the new poem I'd intended to read and recited, instead, a shorter one I knew the crowd would respond to.

And how did I know this poem would be a crowd pleaser? For one thing, I've dedicated my life to dissection and the study of basic chemistry. That's what I'm doing when I analyze a poem, my own or someone else's, and figure out how and why it works. I look at the integumentary system of the poem, the surface elements we first encounter, that send the first sensory experiences to the brain. I look at its musculature: those nouns and verbs, the narrative I can't turn away from. I look at its skeletal system: the lines and stanzas, the formal conventions. I look at its organs, too: the beating heart that drives the whole poem's flow, the wit and wisdom that is the product of a million neurons firing in unison. I see a poem like the human form: deeply intricate and indivisible, unique and part of a community. I've taken my scientific leanings into my study of poetry, and that has helped me immensely.

I've found my life path, and though on the surface it does not resemble the physician's life I thought I was headed for, on closer inspection, I see that I am fulfilling my ambitions and adhering to the same basic building blocks I'd always cared about. And let it be known that, like physicians of old (and some would say modern pharmacological scientists are no different), I know that the study of alchemy can be highly beneficial. Poetry requires refinement of the elements we know so they will shift into another thing entirely. Line breaks and punctuation combined in the proper measure produce movement. Alliteration and meter stacked just so transform everyday words into song. An anecdote about a father's "austere and lonely offices" titrated at just the right rate with just the right reagents will break your heart. This might be basic chemistry, but there's magic in it too.

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