My life as a poet changed dramatically in 1999 when Psychiatric Times founder John L. Schwartz, MD, and editor Christine Potvin decided to include my poems as a monthly column in Psychiatric Times. With the creation of “Poetry of the Times,” I experienced a tremendous jolt of artistic energy, a sense of affirmation, and a huge boost in confidence. Writing the column continues to propel my poetry 10 years later.
But I did have one moment of doubt. . . .
On the eve of publication of the first poem, I realized that more than 43,000 colleagues in psychiatry and the allied mental health professions would be able to read my poetry and consider whatever the poems might reveal about me. As you might imagine, I felt exposed and vulnerable. Fortunately, my anxiety was unnecessary; your support and resonance with the poems has been one of the most gratifying aspects of the column. Over the years, your e-mails, letters, and personal words of encouragement have been heartwarming, and knowing that the poems touch your personal and professional lives in a meaningful way continues to be an important source of motivation for me. I have also appreciated the many opportunities you have created for me to speak at medical school grand rounds, literary events, and psychiatric residency training programs around the country. It has been a pleasure to meet so many wonderful colleagues and to have the opportunity to learn more about the poems as you share your insights with me.
Knowing I would have a column to fill each month provided a huge motivation to be disciplined about my writing. Over time, I produced a body of work, and in 2002 my first collection of poems, How JFK Killed My Father, won the Pearl Poetry Prize and was published by Pearl Editions—a literary press. The poems explore my relationship with my father, who suffered with chronic autoimmune disease, and how his illness affected him, our family, and my career as a physician. To continue to honor my father’s memory and to encourage the creative efforts of young writers the way Psychiatric Times had fostered my own writing, I used the Pearl Poetry Prize money to establish and fund the Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Prize for medical students, residents, nursing students, and graduate students at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The award is designed to stimulate our colleagues in training to reflect on their experiences by writing poetry and essays. The award process also encourages student writers to try on the identity of poet and writer. Their stunning poems and essays are available on my Web site www.richardmberlin.com.
Students and colleagues often ask me how I became a poet and wonder if I began writing during childhood. Looking back, the poetry seed was planted by my extraordinary 10th grade English teacher, Miss Athey. Her goal that year was simple: to convey her own love of poetry and literature to her students. I remember one class spent entirely on discussion of the question, “What do you think are the most beautiful words in the English language?” For a 16-year-old whose main interests were girls, grades, and improving his jump shot, Miss Athey’s class was a transformative experience.
But even after Miss Athey’s class, I didn’t think about actually writing poetry until my mid-40s. At that time, I was having fun making up children’s stories for my daughter when a friend asked me to join her writers’ group. Although I had written many scientific papers, I did not consider myself a writer, and the invitation surprised me. My friend was persistent and convinced me to attend the group, and I suddenly became immersed in the world of contemporary poetry and creative writing. I was gripped by the power and beauty of the poetry produced by members of the group, and I began to set aside time to read the work of other contemporary poets.
Suddenly, I was a man in love.
With the support of the group, I experimented with my own writing, studied the details of the craft and—most important of all—I began to apply the intense discipline and focused energy to writing that had enabled me to learn the skills needed to become a doctor.
Being a psychiatrist, I have reflected on how I chose to become a poet rather than pursue other literary genres like fiction or memoirs. I recalled that Freud said, “Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me,” and I have come to believe that every doctor (and every psychiatrist) carries a black bag filled with poetry. Which is to say that in some basic way, our work as physicians is a kind of poetry. Our interactions with patients tend to be brief, focused, emotionally charged and multilayered—generally conveying the intense flash of pleasure and understanding found in poems. In addition, the psychotherapeutic relationship often relies on the poet’s tool of metaphor. I like to think about the connection between medical history taking, psychotherapy, the doctor-patient relationship, and poetry with a line from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “Poetry is the past breaking out in our hearts.”
There are a number of people who have encouraged poetry to break out in my heart, and they merit special thanks. Founding editor John L. Schwartz supported the creation of “Poetry of the Times,” and I applaud him for opening the pages of Psychiatric Times to other writers to encourage their creative development. I am certain my fellow columnists share my appreciation of Psychiatric Times for providing the opportunity to publish our work on a regular basis. Fellow columnists Ronald Pies, MD (our editor-in-chief and a fine poet and writer), Alexandra N. Helper, MD, and the late Paul Genova, MD, have all been extremely generous with their encouragement over the years. The entire staff of Psychiatric Times have been meticulous in laying out the poems and honoring the special needs of poetry. Over the years, editors Christine Potvin, Leo Cristofar, and Susan Kweskin and art director Paola DiMeglio have carefully guided the poems through the publication pro-cess each month.
And to all my readers, please know there is always a moment in my creative process when I imagine you and how you might respond to the poem. I feel very lucky to have you out there and look forward to hearing from you and meeting you in the coming years.
For this 10th anniversary, I have reviewed the 120 poems that have appeared in Psychiatric Times and selected 10 that generated enthusiastic responses from readers and poetry editors who have reprinted many of them in anthologies. I invite you to celebrate the anniversary by reading these poems again.
Dr Berlin’s Top 10 Poems From the Past 10 Years . . . in order!
1. If You Ask Me My Name
I will say healer, priest,
turner of textbook pages,
searcher, listener, arrogant crow
costumed in white, reflecting moon.
My name is scared and foolish
and sometimes too tired to care.
I am death’s reluctant lover,
a child’s guide, mother, father,
hero and fool,
and if you like it simple,
doctor will do.