Poetry and Pain

It is a curious thing that people have for so long associated poets with pain. It is not the only thing they are associated with. Indeed, the general pattern seems to be that artists of diverse types are associated often with all the extremes of human experience. Profound aesthetic or spiritual experiences, the heady flights of romantic limerance, and the horrors and terrors of life and death are found resplendently in the creative works of man. Other things are tackled therein of course, but we as a race have learned to craft symbols of the most significant things as they appear to us (if significance is measured by the strength and effect of experience).

But there is no doubt that of all the extremes we encounter, pain is the most unsettling. Something like awe can be overwhelming, but it is also almost intrinsically good for the soul. But pain is simply is that which makes life contain any stakes at all. It defines everything about us. By pain, I mean all that which we are averse to, but more specifically that which is overcoming and whose valence chains us to its crushing weight.

Pain itself is an evolutionary adaptation within consciousness that is intended to promote avoidant behavior. We burn our hands and are struck with searing sensations so that next time we wear oven mitts. We see a fellow nation invaded and destroyed, and we build up our defenses in order to avoid a similar disaster. Perhaps we then seek out our foe, to destroy him before he does the same to us. You see, even when we risk pain or deliberately suffer it, it is generally to avoid some other pain. And this pattern is ubiquitous throughout our lives. If you can name one thing in your daily life not connected in some close manner to the avoidance of pain, you would surprise me.

I will at this point assume that, in some manner, poetry tackles pain because it is seen to reduce it somehow. It is an ancient phenomenon, noted by almost all, that pain expressed well is relieved in proportion to that expression’s power. It may not remove the pain much, but such is the magic of creation that it transmutes, as in some ancient alchemy, the pain we feel from something unbearable to something enlightening. We are allowed, by such means, to extend the virtue of curiosity, with all its attendant fascination and even joy, to the experience of pain itself.

All this does not remove the undesirability of pain. There is no doubt that we should still generally avoid it for ourselves and others. But we have all learned that one of the essential things to do in life is to inoculate ourselves through exposure to some of the more intransigent characteristics of life: physical pain, the emotions of loss, the fear of death, the creeping shadow of privation, the drifting dread of ostracism, and all other plagues of life. When these come, the wise have practiced coming to terms with these elements of suffering as the opportunity arises, so that the next time they are struck by them again they are better prepared to weather the storm with magnanimity. And if you are able to be so magnanimous, then your pain cannot control or break you, making that pain which is experienced worth something towards our consolation. To quote a Stoic, “‘You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate.'”1

Since it is desirable first to live well and then to die well, one should desire to know what the enemy of such great goals are. Pain and fear are among those which attempt by an internal tyranny to ruin our efforts at accomplishing these goals. So all such practices that inure us to these foes of excellence are to be valued and cherished. And I would argue that creativity, and in this context in particular, poetry have a role to play in this war. And if not the writing of it, the engaged reading of it. Partly the reason why poetry may have a special role to play here is that it often contains a heavy and condensed core of meaning given in relatively few words. This requires a kind of practiced and careful mental digestion to absorb. This meditation is itself a process which aids the restoration of the pained.

And as for the writing of poetry, there is nothing so satisfying in the midst of suffering as to manage to express rightly the nature of your experience. And not only that, but to write about the nature of anything in conscious experience, to create a frame in which it is to be seen, is to not only report what you have experienced but to create experience itself. You see, all that takes place is only ever encountered in memory. Try to catch the present moment before it vanishes – you never will. It is odd but, though we live always in the present, we never find ourselves there. Everything is a memory – something vanished from immediate awareness into a complete reflection, enmeshed within a totality of memory and deeper realms of mind. Our existence is not in the present; it is a vaguer cloud of appearances spread through space and time. We take this fog and fix it into some form when we learn to express ourselves. That new recollection, carefully crafted, becomes something that did not exist at the time of our experience, but it yet transforms the event of the past into a fresh reality. It is true that something like objective reality is indeed always present. But it is merely a foundation, a limit of what may be. What causes appearances is concrete; the appearance itself is variable. Learning to create external to ourselves a framework of our recollections, such as we may do in the creation of poetry, constructs our past and transforms our very lives.

So, if pain is to be more than it originally promises to be – a tyrant of the soul – then it must be mastered within our present memories. As each moment of it passes, we have so far endured; we can endure again, time and time again. It may seem insoluble at its most unbearable, but it does indeed contain a treasure. And if it seems insensitive, or even mocking to say so to the one who has been broken by pain too many times, I do understand that. But would it be more helpful or hopeful to propose there is no gain to be had in suffering? The process of coming to the place where pain can be perceived more clearly can only be completed by deliberate action. And I propose, for at least one option, the action of poetry.

Featured image: ‘Archimedes,’ by Niccolo Barabino (1860), image in the public domain.

  1. ‘On Providence,’ in Seneca: Dialogue and Essays, trans. John Davie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 10. []

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