2022/Apr/11 Of Bards and Brains, Meters and Minds with Dr. Nassir Ghaemi

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH is a psychiatrist and researcher specializing in depression and bipolar illness. After his medical training, he obtained an MA in philosophy from Tufts University in 2001, and a MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2004. He is the author of A First-Rate Madness, among other books. His clinical work and research has focused on depression and manic-depressive illness. In this work, he has published over 200 scientific articles, over 50 scientific book chapters, and he has written or edited over half a dozen books. He is an Associate Editor of Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, and is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and also Lecturer on Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Dr Nassir Ghaemi


We asked him to tell us the story how poetry became a means of connection with his colleagues in Chile. 


* * *

About a decade ago, I went to Chile for a psychiatric conference. Upon arrival there, I met Luis Risco, now chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Chile.

Hearing about my ethnicity, he exclaimed:

“You’re Persian! Oye, Persia has great poetry doesn’t it?"

"Yes it does,” I replied.

“I’m a poet too,” Luis said; “I published a little book of poetry. Have you written any poetry?

"Not really."

"Do you know any Persian poetry?"

"Well, yes, all Iranians know some classic Persian poets by heart: Saadi, Hafiz, Rumi, Khayyam. Even illiterate people will recite some of that poetry, often before or after their daily prayers.”

Poetry, I knew, was as central to the traditions and culture of Latin America as it is to the Middle East. People in El Salvador or Colombia or elsewhere in Latin America routinely cite poetry extemporaneously, just as Iranians and Arabs do.

These are poetic cultures, unlike the US, and maybe England (though perhaps not France and Germany, where average citizens recite Goethe or other poets easily). Or maybe the absence of poetic literacy is a more recent phenomenon in the West.

When I was a visiting medical student in London in the late 1980s, I had this experience. I had joined about 4 other British medical students in a neurology rotation where we observed outpatient clinic visits. Our neurology professor was seated behind his desk, and we stood in a semicircle around him, as patients were brought in from a door opposite us. Once, in between patients, in a few minutes of delay, our professor turned to us and asked, “Who can recite some Shakespeare?” None of us budged; I’m not sure if it was because no one really knew any Shakespeare by heart, or if we were all too surprised, or scared. But no one said anything. The neurologist turned away in some disgust: “How can you expect to be good doctors if you don’t know any Shakespeare?”

Back to Chile, Luis asked:

“Can you translate some Persian poetry into Spanish?"

"Well yes, I suppose,” I replied.

The conference was the next morning, so that night in my hotel, I recalled my favorite poem by Rumi, and I wrote it out in Farsi, then I translated it into English, and then I translated the English into Spanish. I buffed up the translation, changing words as it seemed to help the rhythm of the poem without changing the overall meaning.

The next morning, in a large auditorium, I found Luis in the first row, holding a seat next to him for me. As others began to introduce the event, I handed him my translation in a piece of a paper. A short while afterwards, I was introduced and I began to give my lecture on mood illnesses and psychopharmacology.

I looked down at Luis in the first row. He was reading the paper in his hand over and over, and he was shaking his head. He took off his glasses, and wiped his eyes. He was paying no attention to my lecture.

Afterwards, he remarked:

“Nassir, I couldn’t pay attention to your lecture. This poem is so beautiful, so moving. Can you translate more?”

And thus began a process that ended in Luis deciding to arrange an evening of poetry at the house of Pablo Neruda, now a museum, in Santiago. Luis was good friends with Raul Zurita, the national poet laureate of Chile, who he invited to the event. The plan was for for Luis to recite one of his poems, and for me to recite my poem by Rumi, and then for Zurita to end the evening reciting his poem.

We took over the entire Neruda house; there must have been a few hundred attendees, mostly psychiatrists from the medical conference, with their spouses and friends. Luis thought we had more people there at the poetry night than we had at the hotel auditorium.

The night was a blur to me. Luis recited his poem with power but quietly. I recited Rumi with my Persian/American-accented Spanish. And then Zurita hit a home run, reading one of his poems with passion, anger, as if each word shivered through his entire body, his bald head and soft beard moving in seemingly opposition directions with each strong flourish of emphasis.

After it was all over, Luis made me promise to send him more poems, including some of my own. I had never written poems with the stated intent to write poems. But I had collected some comments from patients over the years, which I would write down in a special little folder book my wife had given me which sat on my desk, after patients left my office. Sometimes they would say the most amazing things, pearls of truth, throwaway comments that would floor me though I couldn’t show it, the honed results of a lifetime of pain. I would write those comments down, and as Luis asked me to write my own poems, I realized that those comments were poems themselves, kernels of poems, which only needed some tending and care to turn into full stanzas.

So I wrote a few, and translated some more Persian favorites of mine, and sent them to Luis over the next few years. He eventually collected them into a little book, with an introduction by Raul Zurita, and he invited back to Chile a few years later on the occasion of the publication of the bilingual poetry book, titled “Voces (Voices)” along with another clinical conference.

photo of the poets
Selfie of the poets, Luis Risco on left, Nassir Ghaemi on right.

That’s the story behind my poems.

In a series of blog posts for the BSNNP, I’m republishing them, beginning with the first poem by Rumi, “Desire,” to be followed by a poem per month or so. After Rumi’s poem, I’m also republishing Zurita’s introduction, and would encourage readers to find his works, like “Mis amigos me creen que / estoy muy mala” (“My friends think / I’m very sick”).

For more from Dr. Ghaemi, follow him on twitter @nassirghaemi and check out his website https://www.nassirghaemi.com/.



---Introduction to Nassir Ghaemi's poetry---

"It's like listening to voices behind voices, like seeing faces behind faces ..."

I can’t remember where I read that sentence, but it was the first thing that came to mind after reading the poems of this short great book, "Voices," by the Iranian poet Nassir Ghaemi. They seem to show that poetry, rather than being an individual creation of a single person, is a collective construction in which countless languages, songs, sagas and stories are built either in the arc of a few centuries, such as of Latin American poetry, or over millennia, like Persian poetry. Every poem is the total history of poetry and the total history of poetry lives in the few lines of a poem.

Sharp, paradoxical, ironic, slightly desolate, "Voices" throws us frontally against sentences, of extreme clarity, almost clinical, timeless, but expressed in natural everyday language.   We are reminded that every great poem -  starting with the Iliad or, further back still, with the great Epic Song of Gilgamesh, until the last line that is written by the youngest poets of today -  is always contemporary poetry.

Into this contemporaneity, next to his poems, Nassir Ghaemi places his own English and Spanish translations of the thirteenth century Persian poet, Rumi Jalal ul-Din, whom many consider the greatest mystic poet of all time. If "Voices" is a great brief book, it is so, among many other reasons, because when reading it, we perceive that our voices are the voices that inhabit this book, as are thousands and millions of other voices; that what we feel in these poems is exactly what these poems feel in us; that, in short, what makes all poetry suffer, cry out, sing, or love is the same as what makes humanity itself suffer, cry out, and love.

Raúl Zurita

May 2016

National Prize of Literature 2000, Chile



Translated and adapted by Nassir Ghaemi

Show me your face.
The garden of roses
             is what I desire.
Open your lips
Sweet sugar
             is what I desire.
O sun of beauty, come forth from the clouds.
Your radiant face
             is what I desire.
“Leave me, go!” you say in anger.
Just that “leave me, go!”
             is what I desire.
This circle of bread & water
is a disloyal torrent.
I am a fish, a whale, the sea
             is what I desire.
Like Jacob, I wail & flail about  (ilegible)
The vision of young Joseph
             is what I desire.
Without you, the city is my prison
The exile of mountain & desert
             is what I desire.
Yesterday the Shaikh took a lantern around the city
“Beast & devil tire me.
             is what I desire”.
“He is not to be found”,
they said. “We have searched”.
“That which is not to be found”
he answered, “that
             is what I desire”.