Themes and Meanings

Carver’s poems, like his short stories, are usually personal and autobiographical. “What the Doctor Said” deals with an actual incident. In September of 1987, Carver, who had been a heavy cigarette smoker for many years, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Two-thirds of his left lung was removed, but, in March of 1988, the devastating disease recurred—as it often does—as a brain tumor. He underwent seven weeks of full-brain radiation, but by June the doctors found many more new malignant tumors in his lungs, and he knew he had only a short time to live. He died on August 2, 1988.

The most unusual statement in the poem comes as a surprise ending. The patient acts grateful for the bad news. He jumps up, shakes hands, and perhaps even thanks the doctor. The reader is left wondering what priceless gift it is that the speaker feels he has just received. There is something very strange about this deceptively simple, factual poem. The doctor should be offering consolation, but it seems that the patient is more sensitive and aware than the doctor, who is a sympathetic but unimaginative man of science. The speaker realizes that the doctor feels uncomfortable in that awkward situation. The patient actually ends up comforting the doctor, trying to make his ordeal easier. This subtle reversal of roles is a Carveresque touch of humor that gives the poem an added dimension. It is also ironic that while the patient uses only the most prosaic language, the doctor...

(The entire section is 437 words.)