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 uses “poetic diction” and metaphysical concepts when he speaks of forest groves and blowing mist and asks for understanding of the meaning of life and death.
The idea that death can be a blessing has often been expressed in literature. For example, in the famous soliloquy that begins with the words “To be, or not to be” in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (1603), Hamlet says that death is “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” In one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems, she says: “Because I could not stop for death/ He kindly stopped for me.” Algernon Charles Swinburne, in his poem “The Garden of Proserpine,” writes:
From too much love of living,From hope and fear set free,We thank with brief thanksgivingWhatever gods may beThat no life lives forever;That dead men rise up never;That even the weariest riverWinds somewhere safe to sea.
What Carver means by the doctor’s “gift” is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Perhaps the only person who can be sure of understanding the multifaceted emotion in question is one who, like Carver, knows that his or her own death is imminent and inescapable.