The Poem

In “What the Doctor Said,” the speaker is recalling the most traumatic experience of his life. His doctor tells him he has terminal lung cancer. The fact that it is inoperable is indicated by the doctor’s statement that he quit after counting “thirty-two of them.” Twice the doctor refers to “them” as if avoiding calling “them” what they really are: malignant tumors. He does not suggest any treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy, nor does he suggest, as doctors often do, that his patient seek a second opinion. The doctor is trying to be kind but wants to make it clear that there is no hope for a cure. Both doctor and patient feel awkward, and the speaker is more aware of the doctor’s feelings than his own. He will have plenty of time to experience his own complex feelings when he is alone with the grim, inescapable fact that he is very gently being handed his death sentence. The doctor quite understandably asks the patient if he is a religious man, presumably hoping he has some faith in a higher power that will give him consolation. This question, however, only makes the patient’s grim fate more certain because it is as if the doctor is saying, “There is nothing medical science can do for you; you had better prepare to meet your maker.”

The poem ends with a very puzzling statement. The speaker seems almost grateful that the doctor has just given him “something no one else on earth” has ever given him. The speaker...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Forms and Devices

“What the Doctor Said,” a poem of only twenty-three lines, is typical of a popular school of modern poetry. Its members have abandoned all traditional poetic devices, including rhyme, meter, and “poetic diction,” and write in a simple, straightforward, conversational manner. The poem is also completely lacking in punctuation. Raymond Carver has even departed from the convention of capitalizing the first letter in each line. There are no quotation marks around the words spoken by the doctor or patient, and there is no question mark at the end of the sentence in which the doctor asks if the speaker is a religious man who prays for spiritual guidance. There is not even a period at the end of the last line. The elimination of conventional punctuation marks makes “What the Doctor Said” seem like a stream-of-consciousness narrative and makes readers feel as if they are eavesdropping on very private thoughts and feelings. A longer example of this kind of interior monologue can be found in the last chapter of James Joyce’s famous novel Ulysses (1922), often called “Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy,” which consists of one sentence running for forty-five pages without a single punctuation mark.

It is especially noteworthy that the poem is factual and prosaic except for lines 7-11, in which the doctor appears to be using poetic imagery and metaphysical terminology. These lines stand out in sharp contrast to the others in the poem. The speaker’s recollection is sketchy: It seems likely that most of the words he attributes to the doctor in those lines (especially “mist blowing against your face and arms”) are not really part of “what the doctor said” but rather thoughts and images aroused in the speaker’s own mind. The device of having a few lines of vivid imagery stand out against a backdrop of deliberately prosaic utterance can be found in some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It always has the effect of making the imagery more intense by contrast. A good example for comparison with Carver’s poem is William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, which contains the famous lines:

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,Haply I think on thee, and then my state,(Like to the lark at break of day arisingFrom sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate.


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