Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Robert Pinsky and the Muse of Psychiatry

Robert Pinsky's fascinating "Essay on Psychiatrists," which surely must be by far the longest published poem in the history of the world that is devoted to shrinks, once inspired me to write a much less felicitous essay of my own. I was surprised to discover today that, well, both "essays"--one a must-read, the other not so much--are fully available online.

This is Pinsky's conclusion (section 21. 21!):

Essaying to distinguish these men and women,
Who try to give medicine for misery,
From the rest of us, I find I have failed

To discover what essential statement could be made
About psychiatrists that would not apply
To all human beings, or what statement

About all human beings would not apply
Equally to psychiatrists. They, too,
Consult psychiatrists. They try tentatively

To understand, to find healing speech. They work
For truth and for money. They are contingent...
They talk and talk...they are, in the words

Of a lute-player I met once who despised them,
"Into machines"...all true of all, so that it seems
That "psychiatrist" is a synonym for "human being."

Even in their prosperity which is perhaps
Like their contingency merely more vivid than that
Of lutanists, opticians, poets--all into

Truth, into music, into yearning, suffering,
Into elegant machines and luxuries, with caroling
And kisses, with soft rich cloth and polished

Substances, with cash, tennis and fine electronics,
Liberty of lush and reverend places--goods
And money in their contingency and spiritual

Grace evoke the way we are all psychiatrists
All fumbling at so many millions of miles
Per minute and so many dollars per hour

Through the exploding or collapsing spaces
Between stars, saying what we can.

This was published in 1975, but not so much has changed, really. One can't expect him to get everything right...Even lutanists had the temerity to despise us? What would guitarists do, crush us like bugs? What "prosperity?" Okay, maybe more prosperous than contemptuous lutanists and snarky poets, but opticians may be a close call...Not really into caroling (is anyone?)...

One of my observations back then was the back-handed compliment at the heart of the poem. Message: psychiatrists are just like the rest of us, no worse, no better. Therefore don't hate them, but why pay to see them really? I've got kids to feed...

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