A smile is a curve that sets everything straight” – Phyllis Diller.
But it’s not easy to produce a smile on demand. A smile is a response to something, and therefore hard to manufacture. Yet whenever we are faced with a camera these days, we are expected to smile. It’s great if the camera catches us in a moment of pure spontaneous mirth, but rather excruciating if we have to wait for photographer to compose the shot, our smiles tightening into a kind of rictus. Yet in the current selfie culture, smiling for the camera is almost obligatory.
This wasn’t always the case. Mark Twain apparently once said, “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity, than a silly smile caught and fixed forever.” Perhaps that’s why we still don’t smile for passport photographs. If Facebook is any guide, however, the silly smile is how millions of people will now be remembered.
The only poem I have ever written directly about dentistry is called “A Patient”. When I wrote it, some fifty years ago, James Kirkup’s “A Correct Compassion” was the only example I knew of a poem ‘about’ medicine. It is both a vivid description of a cardiac surgeon, observed by medical students, performing a mitral stenosis valvotomy, and an extended metaphor for the writing of a poem.
At the end of the operation (and the end of the poem), the surgeon’s ‘“I do not stitch up the pericardium. // It is not necessary.’” is matched by the poet’s conclusion:
For this is imagination’s other place, / Where only necessary things are done.”
The occasion of my own poem was less dramatic, but I like to think it demonstrates that a dental extraction, another occasion where ‘only necessary things are done’, can make a fitting subject for a poem.
… Now we insert the point of an elevator in the peridontal space.”
– from “A Patient” by Alan Roddick.
There are not many poets who can confidently use the phrase ‘peridontal space’ in a poem. Indeed, I know only one: dentist poet Alan Roddick, whose long awaited second collection, Getting it Right, has just appeared. It follows at a stately remove from its predecessor, The Eye Corrects, which was published in 1967. The poems collected in Getting it Right feel honed, polished, clear. They celebrate the natural world, love and life (there is only the one poem which overtly mentions dentistry, so dentophobics need not fear opening the book), and Roddick brings his steady eye and hand to every line.