I have the day off from Clinic, which meant a morning crammed with errands such as taking my car in for service. Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin to drop off the car, I was struck by the fact I have driven over that bridge countless times and yet, and yet, every time I cross it something seems different. Same bridge, but different: at times, fog; at times sailboats all over the Bay; at times an armada of gulls sweeping overhead. But this brings me to your criticism, though it is small, of my life today.
I am not the young man you met in graduate school; this is true. In many ways, it is difficult for me to recognize that man. And you are right to say that that young man was obsessed with poetry, that he seemed to spend every waking moment reading it, writing it, discussing it, teaching it, etc. But what may surprise you is that, despite what you think, poetry is still a deep obsession in my life. In some ways, it is my primary obsession.
You write that I spend much of my life now being a doctor, that the flame of poetry has died. This, I can assure you, though I don’t believe I need to, is completely wrong. Poetry is no less an obsession for me now than it was when we first knew each other twenty years ago. But that obsession is now more internal than external. I still read poetry all the time. There is never a week I don’t read poetry. But I am not a graduate student who wants everyone to know I am a poet. I am a poet. And all the things you remark about are external to the actual life of making poems.
I had to laugh when I read your criticism that my poems tread the same ground and that this was the ultimate proof that I no longer live a life filled with poetry. And here is where the Bridge comes in. We cannot help our obsessions. We cannot help the desire to return to things again and again. At least I cannot help that. But see, each time I go back I find something new, something else: the fog; the sailboats drifting by; the gulls overhead. I find, in the same moment, many things I had not seen before and may never see again. If anything, I don’t see my obsessions and repetitions as a failure of my being a poet. I write despite that.
You are right to say much of my time is taken up by the practice of medicine. I would be lying if I said otherwise. There are days when even in the shower I am going over treatment plans of patients of mine, checking and double-checking in my head that I have done all the steps correctly and in the correct sequence. I do this sometimes in the car, while eating dinner, while getting ready for bed, and sometimes even as I am trying to fall asleep. But this is my life. It is a life that feels as much chosen as given to me. But this does not mean poetry is any less for me. If anything, the discipline of thought required of me for my “day job” has only helped me as a poet. Or at least I convince myself of this.
Medicine has not made me wise. Editing has not made me wise. Teaching has not made me wise. Life has made me wiser, and for me poetry is essential to my life. As the ancient Greek said: “Wisdom is knowing which questions to ask again.” I ask and I ask over and over, but I never know if that is just me seeking knowledge or if that is, in fact, wisdom. I suppose one never knows which questions to ask again. But in this, again, I see repetition and obsession, a willingness to return and look again.
So, despite not wanting to give a defense of my own life, something I would normally brush off with an imperious statement such as “There is no need for a defense,” I have done just that. For me, life is poetry, albeit a raw poetry, a series of drafts. One need not run from life to have the time to take those drafts and make something more from them. All one needs for that is desire and perseverance. And I would like to believe that I have those things. I would like to believe that.
And so I end with congratulations on placing your first book and with well wishes for it once published. You should be happy, not because you now feel as if “you have a place at the table,” but because it is something to celebrate. You have always had a place at the table, book or no book. And what you feel were unnecessary diversions in these years, I might see as necessary for the work you did. In the end, I will not ask you to forgive me my “sins” as you see them. What I ask is that you forgive yourself. Only a man who has not forgiven himself looks at others and believes their lives are “perfect.” I am, in this way, still a student of Dostoevsky; I still believe what makes us all human is suffering. All of us suffer whether or not you can see that. All of us. Anyone who says other than that is either lying or delusional. The great thing that binds us all as human beings is suffering.