the Right Words
Kenneth Robert Lee, MD
Pathologist Kenneth Robert Lee, MD, has spent his
career examining tissue slides and drawing from details seen and unseen to make
a diagnosis. Now that he is working part-time at BWH, where he has practiced
since 1994, Lee is devoting more time than ever before to writing poetry.
Lee's second book of poems, Sweet Spot, was published by Connecticut's Antrim House earlier
this fall. "Kenneth Lee rings all the changes life has
to offer, from the joys and mysteries of childhood and married love to the
‘breakers' of later life countered by the sunny promontories that remain at the
end of day," wrote the publisher.
Below, Lee shares his introductions to
poetry and his inspirations as well as a selected poem from his new collection.
When did you first begin writing poetry?
It was about 25 years ago. I took a poetry
anthology, my wife's book from college, on a hike in the Adirondack Mountains. As
I read it, I thought, ‘Wow, what had I been missing all these years?' So I
started reading more poetry and soon thereafter decided to try my hand at writing
it. But I didn't try to publish back then; I just enjoyed the writing.
About seven years ago, I went part-time. I decided
to become serious about poetry, so I started going to workshops and seeking out
mentors. I came to realize what hard work it was to write good poems, but after
about five years, I thought I had enough ‘good ones' for a book. It took me
another year compiling and revising to have a manuscript to send to publishers.
What was this process like?
It was difficult.
There are thousands of poets trying to publish their books in a very small
market. I also submitted my poems
to 30 or so contests, but I didn't win any. As I was submitting, I kept
changing the collection, writing new poems, deleting others and trying to
improve the ones I kept.
found Antrim House. I sent three poems, and the editor asked me to send 10
more. He liked them and agreed to
publish. It took about a year after that of back and forth by e-mail to edit
and organize it. The book has 52 poems; by then I had written maybe 300.
did you decide on the title, "Sweet Spot"?
suggested it. The title comes from a poem about playing baseball as a kid: Once one came in fat and I connected, / met
it in the sweet spot, sent it a mile.
would you describe your poetry?
My poems are
based on my life and my experiences. The book is organized more or less
chronologically, from childhood memories to being an Air Force pilot to medical
school. After that there are several poems about being a pathologist, a
husband, a father of five kids and a grandfather. Then there are poems about
life in general, about getting old and facing the prospect of dying. These
latter ones are countered by two upbeat poems at the end. I try to explore life
and the human condition.
Although they are
from my experiences, I think my poems are accessible and applicable to most
people's lives. Several people have told me that they found the book hard to
put down and ended up reading it through in one sitting. The poems are not difficult,
but I don't think they're simplistic. There is subtlety underneath the words -
at least that's what I work for.
do you write?
I really enjoy
the act of just sitting by myself and thinking. I guess I'm a solitary person.
After you put thoughts on a page, there is the task of making them artistically
pleasing and musical while maintaining interest in the images and ideas.
Writing is the hardest thing I've ever done - harder than medical school and
It's not hard to
write a poem, but it's very difficult to write a good one. I think Emily
Dickinson said something like, ‘I know it's a poem if it takes off the top of
my head.' I like to think people read my poetry and think, ‘Yes, that's it; I
know what you mean.'
did you come to specialize in pathology?
When I started
medical school at the University of Virginia, I had no idea there was such a
thing as a pathologist. But the pathology course during my second year was the
best part of my first two years. During my fourth year, a softball teammate who
was a pathology resident helped to convince me to go into the specialty. I have
never regretted it.
school, I completed my training at the University of Vermont, where I worked
for 15 years. I developed an interest in gynecologic pathology, so I took a
two-month mini fellowship at MGH with the distinguished pathologist Dr. Robert
Scully. I came to realize the opportunities for gynecologic pathology in
Boston. When my kids grew up, it was now or never. An opportunity at BWH became open, and I was hired by the
late Dr. Ramzi Cotran.
your poetry relate to your practice, or vice versa?
There are certainly similarities. As a pathologist,
you have to pay close attention to detail. I'd say that microscopic pathology
is a kind of art because so much of it is based on experience. The slide doesn't tell you the
diagnosis. You have to consolidate all you see and all you have learned to make
a decision. Like poetry, it's something you become better at with practice.
Are there other writers in your family?
My son, Tony, is
a sports journalist. He's written for ESPN and NESN, the Metro and online publications. My father was a frustrated writer. He
wrote poems and short stories and very much enjoyed writing pithy letters to the
editor. I think we inherited that from him.
Who are your favorite poets?
poets: Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats. They are the ones who originally ‘took off
the top of my head.' Later I came to T.S. Eliot, Rainer Rilke, Philip Larkin,
Weldon Kees, Louise Bogan.
To obtain a copy
of Sweet Spot, e-mail Dr. Lee at
By Kenneth Lee
Because a butterfly in Bolivia fluttered its left
I entered the revolving door a step behind you.
Because in Zanzibar a zebra stubbed its foot,
I dropped behind another step and caught my foot
As the spinning door brought forth its rearward wing
Jamming its momentum just as you
Attempted to emerge. Because I smiled at you
In a way you found disarming, you waited at the escalator's
To ask directions to the Monet wing.
Because I walked there with you,
Tonight the coast of France slides underneath our