Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Apologia Pro Vita Sua
With apologies to John Henry Newman.

The Link Between Prose and Poetry

When I was young, I liked poetry a lot, but never thought much about what I was reading. I majored in English when I went to college. Poetry was about romance, love and sex, seemingly vital subjects, and short ones. But Academia acquainted me with Byron, Spenser and the like, who wrote eight hundred page volumes of poetry and spoiled it. For people born with a talent, poetry came pouring out. So I satisfied premedical requirements, and never looked back.

After sixty years of happily practicing medicine, I returned to prose. Writing five hundred pages of a book about Health Savings Accounts, I had to shorten to two hundred, for anyone to read it willingly. After chopping hundreds of pages, I had to add some, to explain away the choppiness. And so more pruning, until what was wrong emerged: the idea comes at the end. No one but a graduate student reads that kind of book if it's long. Book reviews help the reader overcome the flaw, but it's a flaw. So more pruning was needed: no examples, no history--just the bare bones idea. And that's where poetry re-emerged. Every word must be essential. The book is a poem, not the chapters, or most of the words.

So what about Byron? He was apparently born prolix. or more likely self-taught. Just as I learned in college how to fill a blue book with words, and later in life went back to remove most of them. I had started writing answers before I fully understood the questions, and then doubled back without erasing. Those are bad habits. Poetry is better, but romance is a trivial part of it. Every prose piece contains a poem, trying to get out.

Originally published: Thursday, January 14, 2016; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019