Robert Pinsky Poems >>
Essay on Psychiatrists

I. Invocation

It's crazy to think one could describe them-
Calling on reason, fantasy, memory, eves and ears-
As though they were all alike any more

Than sweeps, opticians, poets or masseurs.
Moreover, they are for more than one reason
Difficult to speak of seriously and freely,

And I have never (even this is difficult to say
Plainly, without foolishness or irony)
Consulted one for professional help, though it happens

Many or most of my friends have-and that,
Perhaps, is why it seems urgent to try to speak
Sensibly about them, about the psychiatrists.


II. Some Terms

"Shrink" is a misnomer. The religious
Analogy is all wrong, too, and the old,
Half-forgotten jokes about Viennese accents

And beards hardly apply to the good-looking woman
In boots and a knit dress, or the man
Seen buying the Sunday Times in mutton-chop

Whiskers and expensive running shoes.
In a way I suspect that even the terms "doctor"
And "therapist" are misnomers; the patient

Is not necessarily "sick." And one assumes
That no small part of the psychiatrist's
Role is just that: to point out misnomers.


III. Proposition

These are the first citizens of contingency.
Far from the doctrinaire past of the old ones,
They think in their prudent meditations

Not about ecstasy (the soul leaving the body)
Nor enthusiasm (the god entering one's person)
Nor even about sanity (which means

Health, an impossible perfection)
But ponder instead relative truth and the warm
Dusk of amelioration. The cautious

Young augurs with their family-life, good books
And records and foreign cars believe
In amelioration-in that, and in suffering.


IV. A Lakeside Identification

Yes, crazy to suppose one could describe them-
And yet, there was this incident: at the local beach
Clouds of professors and the husbands of professors

Swam, dabbled, or stood to talk with arms folded
Gazing at the lake ... and one of the few townsfolk there,
With no faculty status-a matter-of-fact, competent,

Catholic woman of twenty-seven with five children
And a first-rate body-pointed her finger
At the back of one certain man and asked me,

"Is that guy a psychiatrist?" and by god he was! "Yes,"
She said, "He looks like a psychiatrist."
Grown quiet, I looked at his pink back, and thought.


V. Physical Comparison With Professors And Others

Pink and a bit soft-bodied, with a somewhat jazzy
Middle-class bathing suit and sandy sideburns, to me
He looked from the back like one more professor.

And from the front, too-the boyish, unformed carriage
Which foreigners always note in American men, combined
As in a professor with that liberal, quizzical,

Articulate gaze so unlike the more focused, more
Tolerant expression worn by a man of action (surgeon,
Salesman, athlete). On closer inspection was there,

Perhaps, a self-satisfied benign air, a too studied
Gentleness toward the child whose hand he held loosely?
Absurd to speculate; but then-the woman saw something.


VI. Their Seriousness, With Further Comparisons

In a certain sense, they are not serious.
That is, they are serious-useful, deeply helpful,
Concerned-only in the way that the pilots of huge

Planes, radiologists, and master mechanics can,
At their best, be serious. But however profound
The psychiatrists may be, they are not serious the way

A painter may be serious beyond pictures, or a businessman
May be serious beyond property and cash-or even
The way scholars and surgeons are serious, each rapt

In his work's final cause, contingent upon nothing:
Beyond work; persons; recoveries. And this is fitting:
Who would want to fly with a pilot who was serious

About getting to the destination safely? Terrifying idea-
That a pilot could over-extend, perhaps try to fly
Too well, or suffer from Pilot's Block; of course,

It may be that (just as they must not drink liquor
Before a flight) they undergo regular, required check-ups
With a psychiatrist, to prevent such things from happening.


VII. Historical (The Bacchae)

Madness itself, as an idea, leaves us confused-
Incredulous that it exists, or cruelly facetious,
Or stricken with a superstitious awe as if bound

By the lost cults of Trebizond and Pergamum ...
The most profound study of madness is found
In the Bacchae of Euripides, so deeply disturbing

That in Cambridge, Massachusetts the players
Evaded some of the strongest unsettling material
By portraying poor sincere, fuddled, decent Pentheus

As a sort of fascistic bureaucrat-but it is Dionysus
Who holds rallies, instills exaltations of violence,
With his leopards and atavistic troops above law,

Reason and the good sense and reflective dignity
Of Pentheus-Pentheus, humiliated, addled, made to suffer
Atrocity as a minor jest of the smirking God.

When Bacchus's Chorus (who call him "most gentle"!) observe:
"Ten thousand men have ten thousand hopes; some fail,
Some come to fruit, but the happiest man is he

Who gathers the good of life day by day"-as though
Life itself were enough-does that mean, to leave ambition?
And is it a kind of therapy, or truth? Or both?


VIII. A Question

On the subject of madness the Bacchae seems,
On the whole, more pro than contra. The Chorus
Says of wine, "There is no other medicine for misery";

When the Queen in her ecstasy-or her enthusiasm?-
Tears her terrified son's arm from his body, or bears
His head on her spear, she remains happy so long

As she remains crazy; the God himself (who bound fawnskin
To the women's flesh, armed them with ivy arrows
And his orgies' livery) debases poor Pentheus first,

Then leads him to mince capering towards female Death
And dismemberment: flushed, grinning, the grave young
King of Thebes pulls at a slipping bra-strap, simpers

Down at his turned ankle. Pentheus: "Should I lift up
Mount Cith