Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ars Dentifrica

Don't worry. That's an entirely made up phrase. I've been reading Doc, a historical novel by Mary Doria Russell, about Doc Holliday, the famous dentist of the Wild West. The novel is mostly set in Dodge City, Kansas, but also visits Georgia, Texas, California, Arizona, and Colorado. Doc Holliday sets up a practice in Dodge, and we get to see him make a marvelous partial denture. Alongside shootouts and poker, of course.

But on p. 215 of the book there's a sort of ars dentifrica that could serve as an ars poetica as well, a sort of explanation for why a poet writes, what is the essence of poetry, and what is that particular person's essential task in poetry. Here, the essence of dentistry.  Doc's girlfriend, Kate, is wondering, since he can make way more money dealing cards, "why in hell you bother with this!"


She grabs his papers and equipment, frustrated, and asks again.

"'Because,' he said, astonished that he had to say it, 'I can relieve sufferin'."

She's stunned, still not understanding why he would do something if can make more money doing something else, why he helps people who can't pay him, etc. She can't understand why he has to do the thing he is good at and has a talent for, whether or not people can or will pay him.

"I bother with all this because I can relieve sufferin,'"he repeats. "I can improve lives. Sometimes I can even save them."

I think many a writer, poet, artist is similarly driven. We create in order to relieve suffering. Sometimes we can improve lives, even save someone, depending on the circumstances. The right word falling on the right ears, or heart, at the right time. We don't know. And, in some cases, it's ourselves we are saving. We don't do it for the money, and we can't not do it.

Of course, dentistry advanced, and people pay for it. Art continues, and people are less willing to pay for it.

But look at this tooth, the Roman Coliseum carved into it! (Many thanks to Maureen E. Doallas for showing me the carved tooth. She shares a lot of poetry and art via Twitter, Facebook, and her blog, Writing Without Paper.)


Maureen said...

Great post, Kathleen! "We don't do it for the money, and we can't not do it." That so perfectly describes poets.

Isn't that tooth something?! (Thank you for the shout-out.)

Collagemama said...

Ars dentrifica is fabulous. I'm adding "Doc" to my reading list. Didn't Doc die in South Dakota? Might be time for a side trip into outlaws with or without laudanum.

seana graham said...

If that tooth were real, it would be mighty painful.

I think those of us who pursue the writing life in one form or another often question the value of it. I think as long as we come up with some sort of temporary answer for ourselves, we will be okay. As writers we know that there is always the possibility of revision.