Imagine my delight when in the second half of The Psychiatrist, like a sapphire in my morning oatmeal, I found a chapter entitled "Psychiatrist Poets." This chapter is delightful merely by existing, because knowing Walter as we do it is obvious that he included it as an excuse to talk about himself. It goes on to show that he is by no means alone among his colleagues in being a dreadful poet. Benjamin Rush, whose ideas of treating the mentally ill included strapping them down and spinning them around really fast, leads off with a poem to his wife that you have to assume the other guys who helped to draft the Constitution didn't see. But first, of course, is Walter's introduction:
Psychiatrists have the advantage over medical poets in general in that they live in a world where imagination is encouraged. Many of them have been exposed to the classics, have taken time, before hey endured the rigidity of the medical curriculum, to acquaint themselves with the work of other writers. Probably most of the psychiatrists who write for pleasure have found a challenge in verse as a medium of expression. Creativity is found in many if not all physicians. Their most frequent medium is the written word. Psychiatrists are particularly prone to this, and, as a rule, have less propensity toward gadgetry or invention.
Merrill Moore wrote an epilogue to Mary Lou McDonough's anthology of poet physicians, stressing the differences between medical poets and general poets, their exposure to the trials, tribulations and frustrations encountered. Psychiatrists are well represented. Moore writes: "We do not exactly know what happens to the physician who becomes a poet. It may be an atypical kind of development that he undergoes. Part of him becomes mature as a professional man but part of him (what the psychoanalyst would call the infantile) remains childish or child-like and plays with poetry. It is fortunate for the physician that he has this outlet. His poetry is probably more important to him that it is to other people as an emotional interest or an expression of his feelings and inner personality which most of the time he has to repress behind the facade or mask of his professional personality. All the poems in this chapter except "Vesperal" are taken from McDonough's collection. [This includes, of course, a poem of Walter's own, meaning that he was in fact a published poet. "Vesperal" is S. Weir Mitchell's, written presumably when he could get a free minute from menacing his patients sexually.]
It must be said that psychiatrists, like other physicians and, indeed, all of the poetasters and poeticules, are prone to doggerel, which may amuse or instruct or irritate, or just plain bore the reader who searches for something to give him a catch in his throat or a welling up of tears. How fortunate that Gertrude Stein, though she finished her medical course, never took her examinations nor received her M.D. degree!
He sounds almost self-aware there, doesn't he?