University of Rochester

The Poetry of Optimism

As Roy Jacobstein ’76M (Res) travels the globe as an international health consultant, he writes snippets about what he sees.

When he returns to his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he returns to those quick impressions.

“It will spark something,” says Jacobstein, a pediatrician and aid worker who for the past decade and a half has turned his talents to poetry.

His most recent collection, A Form of Optimism, was selected for the 2006 Morse Poetry Prize from Northeastern University’s Department of English.

Many of the poems are inspired by Jacobstein’s travels as a public health consultant, and he turns his poet’s eye on subjects that would not seem to lend themselves to poetry.

In “H.I.V. Needs Assessment,” for example, he describes the contrast between that process and the human suffering and stoicism around it.

With a nod to William Butler Yeats, Jacobstein says, “That’s what these poems are about, the ‘terrible beauty.’

“Medicine gives you access to the important things of life that are useful as a writer,” he says. “Doctors deal with highly charged events that everyone has to deal with.”

Both poetry and medicine, Jacobstein says, “demand a heightened attention, and they both are engaged with things that get at the essence of being human.”

Jacobstein says he wanted to write even when he was in his residency, but writer’s block and a conviction that he could only write if he went through a medical-style apprenticeship held him back.

When he finally began to write in the 1990s, he found himself returning to memories of his days at the Medical Center.

“Residency is the most intense experience I’ve ever had,” he says, recalling days of little sleep and great stress. Poems like “What It Was,” published in his first collection, Ripe, recall his training at Strong Memorial Hospital.

A Form of Optimism takes its title from the film director Roberto Rossellini, who declared in a 1954 interview that perceiving evil that exists is a form of optimism.

Jacobstein sees his work as a form of political poetry, a genre he defines as “being engaged in the great debates, the great events, and responding to them in some way.”

—Kathleen McGarvey