Liz Whiteacre


I injured myself a decade ago. Some pains my audiences could see, like the quaking of my legs, and others, like spinal fluid slowly leaking from a disc, were invisible. The challenges of emoting pain in poetry, usually the broken heart variety from my youth, morphed into those of describing physical pains to health care professionals, which would determine my treatment. The stakes were suddenly raised, and the 1 to 10 Likert Scale felt inadequate, leaving me with desperate descriptions like, "well, maybe it feels like the time I slammed my hand in the car's door coupled with the nail I stepped on one summer?"

Every pain is categorized, classified, and prioritized immediately, and we decide on the spot what's taken to the hospital, shared at the dinner table, whispered on pillows, or hidden away. We acknowledge everyone suffers, yet isn't my back pain surely different from your back pain? Sometimes in conversations, the expression of pain escalates until it seems one-up-manship spurs the sharers, a mine's worse than your's is batted back and forth, maybe the sparers point to things they can no longer do. All this experience with pain, yet I wrestle with how to express pain in poems--what do I do to make you really understand what I experience, so that it becomes something shared? How do I do this while preserving my pain's individuality? And, should this even be a goal, could it stop my conversation about pain with you?

I appreciate Lucia Perillo's moment in the examination room when she describes how her "Doctor Dreamboat" stops her description of pain short during her visit with a, "‘Oh right, you're the poet," (46), which leads to her observations that "[n]obody likes a whiner...Pain does not make for good conversation because the purpose of conversation is to elicit more conversation, and if you tell someone you want to chop off your legs your talk will come to a halt" (47). Encountering many such Dreamboats myself, I feel fortunate to have worked with a number of caregivers who have encouraged similes and metaphors, understanding that the nuances of pain given voice by comparisons however beautiful or kooky can significantly alter treatment. It seems then, that a sort of balance must be discovered between the author's and audience's experiences. The vocabulary of pain and stereotypes associated with it and what comparisons we choose to describe unique moments of pain must meet to forge a relationship that the audience can not only recognize, but also welcome into their own realm of experience, so they have something to give back--hopefully, a new understanding of sorts.

I return to it's like.. . trying to balance whine with accuracy. "It shouldn't surprise those of a poetic persuasion to learn that similar brain activities control both empathy and the ability to process metaphor" ("Exploring the Brain on Metaphor"). And while a logical step to explain pain, whether in the physician's office or on the page, is usually comparison, it is still difficult to find the right thing to say to make someone get it, to keep our conversations of pain going. I return to Robert Pinksy's discussion of "The Conventions of Wonder" where he observes, "[a]s a poetic possibility, description is so pervasive that even to avoid it may demand an act of invention" (97). So perhaps in the act of description, going beyond the statement "today, my back hurts" to something like "today, my back refuses to budge, a spade stuck in the mud," I give an interesting hint to my audience about how I'm interpreting my pain in that moment. They might better understand the back pain that keeps me from bending at the middle, keeps me swiveling from the feet as though my torso is fused like the spade's handle to it's blade. Suddenly, a word like "hurt" with infinite connotations has a meaning in this moment that the audience can wrestle with and respond to--creating a dialogue between the poet and reader. We go beyond a response of "OK, your back hurts, that stinks" to "really? I wonder if she means..." or "oh, I remember the time..." or, perhaps, to an interesting question that turns the conversation in a new direction.

Don't we itch to clarify our intentions and experiences when we communicate? Look at the evolution of emoticons, populating electronic messages usually stripped of the nuances of tone. Using a metaphor or simile in a poem in which I'm trying to explain a physical pain helps me access both physical sensation and emotion at the same time, keeping the reader engaged with the pain I'm simulating. Stephen Dobyns suggests, "[b]y making the reader want to know, the writer can use the reader's ignorance as energy to move down the page...If frustration overwhelms expectation, or if the reader grows indifferent, then the writer has lost the reader" (132). The conversation has stopped. This is important to remember when we craft descriptions of our pain; not everyone has slammed a hand in a car door or stepped on a nail. We also need to avoid other types of comparisons that might stop the reader: the pain seared like a hot poker. Modern audiences understand this concept because they've heard it before, but since fewer readers are branding animals, cooking over open flames, even tending wood fires in their hearths these days, it's a simile that means less to readers, perhaps, than something more personal: the pain seared like the blush when my 6th grade talent show performance ended with boos. A very different heat--here I'm accessing a painful emotion instead of a physical pain--but one that might get at the discomfort and pain that would be appropriate to the pain being discussed in the poem. Haven't most readers suffered terrible embarrassment? Doesn't this leave them wanting to find out what happens? Does this, perhaps, better inform them of the type of heated pain I'm experiencing down my right leg that I can't escape?

I find when I read poems about pain, I'm drawn to unexpected comparisons. Lisa Gill's Mortal & Pestle is a beautiful collection about her diagnosis and experiences living with multiple sclerosis. She uses medicinal herbs as vehicles for exploring a wide range of pains in poems. In " Calendula Officinalis: Marigold," a poem that deals not with physical pain but pain from a loved-one's slight, Gill ends the poem with, "[a] wound packed with blossoms/beats a wound." Her poem brings to mind not only the healing properties of marigold and its historical uses in medicine (her speaker recognizes the traditional "balm" in her boyfriend's offer of marigolds), but also how such a cliched gesture, a boyfriend bearing flowers in apology, can be turned, through her use of metaphor in the poem, into something I've yet to experience and remarkably soothing. Gill succeeds in creating a combination that is both familiar and unexpected in this poem.

Often, as we read and compose poetry about pain, we end up in an interesting dialogue with one another. When I read Karen Fiser's poem "Afternoon Nap with Pain Meds" the first time, I found myself thinking, wow, what was she on? In her poem, her environment stirs a beautiful dream: her speaker's "white shirt turned into laundry/flapping in the wind...;" she experiences "the dream/of how it felt to run down the hill,/to kneel in lawns of deep cold clover/with real knees" and ends her nap, waking with "[b]ut here I am awake, thick lids, fat tongue" (Fiser 57). Her visceral, vivid responses on these meds were far different than one of my responses to a pill that prompted me to write "I Can't Remember What the Pain Clinic Doctor Gave Me," in which I recount my experience napping on pain meds when I'd intended to work. I begin, "Kevin phones, we share days/while composition papers slumber on the coffee table,/ ready to rocket my pen across them,/leaving so many marks as starbursts after a comet." My scene ends, "[r]ed pen in hand and papers asleep on the cushions,/then, darkness—my dreams stolen/—I do not remember what filled my brain." While Fisher's speaker feels momentarily freed, let loose to alternative experiences by her drug, mine feels abandoned and victimized. I wonder how many other pain med poems exist, and if collected, what different truths might be quilted together, a montage that might begin to address the varied pains we experience, even under similar conditions?

Sometimes we move beyond our descriptions of pain designed to engage the audience in conversation to overt requests or solicitations for responses. Rhetorical questions are used, poets respond to other poets directly in poems, and sometimes, poets just plain ask. I try to elicit a response in "The Accident: Revised" when, after sharing the abbreviated story of my accident,

…I stop
and listen
because I see you think of your own story,
tragic, destructive. Accident becomes
adhesive. We are all bone, cells, mostly alone.

And two sections follow, in which I work to revise my telling, anxious to find the right way to tell it to you, testing it out again and again, because I'm concerned that even after so many poems about pain, after telling and retelling, I have failed. And so, I'm compelled to begin again, perhaps a new poem this time.

I think it's important to engage with conversations about pain, to dive beneath surfaces—be they physical or metaphysical—because pain saturates most of what we want to talk about. If we apply our craft to elicit empathy and compassion from our audiences through metaphor and other types of description and wait to listen to their responses, then we've entered a meaningful discussion, which will allow us to explore pain in new ways.



Dobyns, Stephen. Best Words Best Order: Essays on Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
"Exploring the Brain on Metaphor." Harriet: A Blog from the Poetry Foundation. The Poetry Foundation. 16 Nov. 2011. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.
Fiser, Karen. Words like Fate and Pain. Cambridge, MA: Zoland Books, 1992.
Gill, Lisa. Mortar & Pestle. USA, New Rivers Press, 2006.
Pinsky, Robert. The Situation of Poetry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Perillo, Lucia. I've Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2007.


Liz Whiteacre is an Associate Professor of English at College of DuPage. She was awarded an Inglis Poetry House Award in 2010 and the Vesle Fenstermaker Poetry Prize for emerging poets from Indiana University in 2008. Her work has appeared in Wordgathering, The Bloomington Bugle, Etchings and The Prairie Light Review.