On Poetry
       and Pain 

by David Radavich

Reprinted by permission from A View from The Loft, January, 2001,


ed Smith once said, “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down and open a vein.” This deliciously ironic statement hints at the intimate connection not only between writing and the body but also between the creative imagination and pain. Pain comes in all varieties and intensities, and psychic anguish can often prove more debilitating than physical ailments or wounds. Plenty of evidence testifies to the close bond between pain and giving birth to the creative arts: “To write . . . because it is an endless beginning, a constantly new first time, like intercourse or pain” (Gánther Kunert). In important ways, pain feeds and sustains human creativity. Making art involves, in quintessential ways, living at close psychic quarters with sacrificial human experience. 

Susan Rubin Suleiman’s Exile and Creativity details many of the interconnections between suffering experienced in the twentieth century and its fertilizing effects on the imagination: “Ultimately, is not every poet or ‘poetic’ (exploring, rigorous) novelist an exile of sorts, looking in from outside onto a bright, desirable image in the mind’s eye . . . ?” In a similar vein, Czeslaw Milosz, who has written so sharply and poignantly of war and cultural dislocation, said in a recent interview, "The experience of exile is very difficult. It's an experience of isolation. . . . But if one can survive . . . it's good to have behind you such an experience." Anyone attuned to nuance, shadow, and the intricacies of emotion and thought will necessarily recoil from much that happens in the world every day. But what actually drives so many to write? The inner propulsion of pain, the desire for alleviation, and the hope for transfiguration into some form that will or can sustain us.

It can also be said that pain brings writers together with readers, since readers frequently resort to reading as an escape from mundanity or outright distemper or angst. Poetry serves this function particularly well, as poets seem of all writers most attuned to psychic disturbances, and readers turn to poetry most often in times of great emotional turmoil for solace, uplift, and renewal. This is not say we enjoy the woundedness that undergirds much reading and writing. Rather, the pain of human life finds its expression and transmutation in the arts, which—far from being inutile aesthetic excrescences of modern life—function on this level to acknowledge and heal the agonies of a given culture.

We would do well, therefore, to examine the ways in which pain informs and sustains quality writing and the current relation of American poets to it. Resurrecting and transmuting a long-since forgotten mediaeval idea, one could say that good reading and writing are in some special degree “purchased by” pain and that artists serve as the “purchasers” of a given culture, whose sacrifice ennobles and renders pain useful and transformative for all those in touch with it. William James finds in the saint “positive pleasure in sacrifice and asceticism, measuring and expressing as they do the degree of his loyalty to the higher power.” The idea of emotional or spiritual exchange arises from mythic foundations, specifically the sacrifice tradition in which a wounding gift of self paradoxically provides nourishing and fecund bounties. Frazier’s ceremony of “Carrying out Death” in The Golden Bough is accompanied by “bringing in Summer, Spring, or Life.”

If artists and writers truly function as the purchasers of pain in the society of their birth or residence, one may enquire about the kinds of pain purchased and the resulting benefits. Not much need be said of actual physical pain, which has produced its share of significant literary works. Indeed, one contemporary journal, Mediphors, devotes itself exclusively to literary works and photography related to medicine and health, including pain, surgery, disease, and recovery. Audre Lord’s cancer poems forthrightly discuss her loss of a breast due to cancer and the politics of gender and health. Other kinds of pain have predominated over the centuries, including romantic loss, alienation from God, self-disgust, and a whole host of afflictions that originate in being human and having an intense consciousness of the enticements, impossibilities, and frustrations of everyday life. These necessarily find their way into our literature, which serves to express and embody our collective pain and our struggles toward resurrection.

The pain experienced by artists is legendary, especially among poets. The United States has a long and by now nearly mythic tradition of poetic suicides and near-suicides among its great writers—Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman among them. Inclusion of those who abused alcohol or drugs or isolated themselves into near-oblivion—Emily Dickinson, Delmore Schwarz, James Dickey, William Matthews—would swell the ranks considerably. To fundamentally pragmatic Americans, such a record indicates that poets are simply people who can’t cope, outdated versions of Thomas Love Peacock’s “semi-barbarians.” Despite the insanity and death in poverty of writers like Nikolaus Lenau, or the demise of Alexander Pushkin, who died in a duel, not to mention Goethe’s fictional young Werther, who initiated a whole generation of romantic suicides, America nonetheless appears to lead the world in the number of actual suicides by poets, at least in this century.

Another way of looking at this phenomenon would say that the “purchase price” for these poets has been too high and that twentieth-century American society has not been interested in this kind of artistic exchange. Emily Dickinson renounced “fame in her lifetime” and, in the land of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard, left to posterity some 900 poems found by her sister Lavinia in “sixty little ‘volumes’ . . . tied together with twine.” In a hostile or oblivious social context, the poet’s transaction of pain on behalf of the culture goes unacknowledged, causing the pain to turn in on itself and self-destruct. (Lest one begin to think that such phrases as “purchasing pain” and “sacrificing on behalf of the culture” might be archaic or ineffectual, I would point out that sports and movie star celebrities routinely suffer pain which is shared and widely discussed in a variety of media outlets.) Although it is certainly true that poets are hypersensitive by temperament, the sheer number of poetic suicides suggests as well that America in some sense destroys its lyric self in pursuit of power and success. The American Dream, it appears, has a high spiritual price-tag, for which artists and particularly poets must pay.

Writing in the confessional mode of the 1960's and 1970's, and more recently in what Gregory Err calls the “postconfessional lyric”—“one of the dominant modes” in contemporary poetry—has tended to exult or wallow in pain. Plath’s poem, “Daddy,” for example, strikes one as brilliant but excessively personal and ultimately unhealthy. The poet excludes the world of the reader and offers precious little transformation, no escape from neurosis, for herself or anyone else. This narrowness does not ruin what remains a fascinating work of art, but it does limit the range and applicability of the poem’s emotions and judgment. Anne Sexton’s “insanity” poems have a similar feel of a poet in trauma who cannot find a way out and cannot even reach the side of the psychic pool to touch safe ground, let alone a fellow swimmer or lifeguard.

Much of the pain expressed in literary works arises from the fundamental, unavoidable stresses of being alive, the corporeal and incorporeal struggles dictated by our very aliveness. Nonetheless, it is interesting to look at the different ways writers have articulated their pain, though the sources are often similar. Some authors are very direct about addressing pain and acknowledging sacrifice. Sappho, for instance, names her pain directly and beautifully: “. . . I entreat you / not with griefs and bitternesses to break my / spirit, O goddess . . .” (“Invocation to Aphrodite”). Emily Dickinson is equally and powerfully blunt: “I can wade grief, / Whole pools of it” (J. 252) and “So we must meet apart, / You there, I here, / With just the door ajar / That oceans are . . . (J. 640). Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet, “Love is not all . . .,” after cataloguing all the offices that love cannot do, ends the octet: “Yet many a man is making friends with death / Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.” Another of her sonnets, “What my lips have kissed . . .,” is equally direct: “. . . And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain / for unremembered lads that not again / Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.”

Other poets have remained more emotionally circumspect. Yeats, among the most sensitive and subtle of poets, nonetheless couches much of his pain; “Adam’s Curse” ends obliquely: “That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown / As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.” Here the “hollow moon” is made to carry much of the freight of Yeats’ sense of loss. In Keats’ famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the object of the title performs dispassionate service: “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man. . . . ”

In our own time, Alan Dugan’s striking poem, “Love Song: I and Thou,” distances self-disgust and masculine failure through the trope of the carpenter detesting his collapsing house: “By Christ / I am no carpenter, I built / the roof for myself, the walls / for myself, the floors / for myself, and got / hung up in it myself . . . .” In all these instances, pain is transmuted through intellectual distance or through projection onto objects (here one thinks also of many Donne poems, with their elaborate conceits).

Skeptics will surely ask, can’t one have poetry without pain? Certainly. One thinks of comic verse, certain forms of narrative poetry, celebratory odes, and much of today’s “spectator” poetry (more on that later). And the close intimacy between poetry and sacrifice should not be misconstrued as meaning that the arts must be depressing or negative; merely, that most great art acknowledges the pain we all know and deals somehow with it. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, among the finest of comic masterpieces, has pain laced all through it, inextricably. Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, overall his most farcical play, hinges on the pain of two sets of twins separated at sea and features painful abuse of a loyal wife by her mistaken husband. Experts in comedy, from Bergson and Freud to Keaton and Chaplin, have recognized the roots of the comic in human pain and loss.

One turns, then, to contemporary writing to discover the kinds of pain peculiar to our time, finding that American poets continue to work against the prevailing pragmatic, commercial grain of American life. Since the modernist period, literature has suffered a conspicuous breakdown in communication between the arts community and the general public. The latter, under steady pressures by highly organized and heavily funded multi-national corporations, have turned their attention to popular entertainments, increasingly unwilling to expend the time and energy to read, say, The Waste Land, or The Sound and the Fury. The chasm has solidified further with the advent of over 3,000 creative writing programs nationwide, which train fledgling writers in intricacies of literary technique, approach, and style far beyond the comprehension of general readers. (It must be acknowledged that poets and writers remain in creative tension with the public at large through readings, book signings, and other kinds of interactions.) Dana Gioia laments a literary subculture that too often lives unto and for itself: “No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, [poetry] has become the specialized occupation of a relative small and isolated group.” Wendell Berry, in the same vein, accuses poets of becoming too specialized, of making “a religion of poetry” and separating themselves from other people.

The most noteworthy literature of any age serves to articulate our discomforts and to transfigure our pain into form and substance that can vitiate its power and heal our wounds. Yet postmodernism, the most prevalent mode of thinking in our time, conspicuously refuses this office, renouncing transfiguration as inauthentic: “postmodernist discourse is precisely the discourse that denies the possibility of ontological grounding.” In other words, the refusal or rejection of meaning is the “true meaning” of our time. So the artist’s task is reduced to playing with words and ideas rather than dealing with the hard edges of life in the world. On a parallel track, John W. Aldridge decries the contemporary vogue of minimalism precisely for its lack of courage in tackling the big issues: “It is clearly a fault of nearly all the younger writers I have discussed that they have so little of substance to say about the nature of contemporary life. . . .”

As for the actual purchase effected by sacrifice, the contemporary entrepreneurial forces at work in the larger society tend to undermine, even negate, such mythic transactions. Writing programs have sprouted up everywhere; they advertise heavily, charge tuition, and imply, if not promise, literary advancement and success. Thus, the means of economic production of literature have become systematized and commercialized, yielding a not insignificant profit. MFA programs do not want, however, to advertise pain, which any marketer of sense would scrupulously avoid; thriving enterprises are unlikely to question the worth or purpose of wares for which they are the primary vendors. Graduates from writing programs learn soon enough about pain on their own, experiencing a depressing rate of rejection in a hugely over-saturated market and discovering that a degree in writing guarantees precious little in the way of literary success and emotional reinforcement.

At bookstores, the climate has turned interestingly schizophrenic. On the one hand, national book chains have bought up independent stores, or driven them out of business, consolidating economic power and thereby rendering the book more of a pure retail commodity than ever before. In such an environment, a good book is one that sells lots of copies, not one that offers intellectual or spiritual insight (though that remains, of course, a plus). Barnes and Noble and Borders work hard to create oases of aesthetic consumption that include readings, signings, book groups, concerts, and other upbeat events designed to lure customers into bazaars of temptation. (The brochure of a bookstore nearby announces that “our highest priority is that you have a pleasant shopping experience with us.”) On the other hand, the books, CDs, cassettes, and other wares sold in an espresso-enhanced atmosphere frequently focus on, and sometimes wallow in, pain. It’s no surprise that biggest sales can be had in the self-help category, where timely products dealing with issues such as absent fathers, suicide, HIV, or mental illness find a ready audience.

In the context of this dualistic environment of escapism and pain, much poetry of the last decade has adopted the “spectator mode”: the author does not feel or think much of anything, at least not directly; instead, she or he looks at a painting or newspaper article and comments on the patterns or thoughts within that context, at a safe remove where one cannot be emotionally judged or found wanting. A typical example of this approach, “An Englishwoman in America,” by William Logan, appeared in the winter 1998 issue of Shenandoah. Adopting a setting of New Orleans, 1858, the poet as historically detached speaker reports that “Mrs. Sillery flirted with all the gentlemen / in true Southern fashion.” Here the immediacy of direct feeling is almost entirely negated in the triple distancing of time, space, and persona; we catch only a momentary glimpse of what Mr. Logan appears to think about issues of race and culture over a century ago.

Undoubtedly, the “spectator mode” of writing grows out of a largely passive video culture unaccustomed to making emotional or philosophical commitments in a period of profound moral confusion. Yet writers still sacrifice every day for their art: not only persevering through rejection by overstocked magazines and publishers, but also through public satiation with and general disregard for the struggles and victories of the artistic trade. Not surprisingly, many poets retreat unto themselves, producing works of great subtlety and originality and sending them to publishers and prize juries. However, most of this occurs without interaction with neighbors, without listening to local or regional concerns. In short, the literary enterprise as currently transacted too rarely encounters the larger culture in need. Relatively few contemporary poets acknowledge or write for the general public, and in some instances they seem actually to scorn what they regard as retrograde “Hallmark taste.” Too often, the transformation that might occur through direct contact with the public Other is not allowed to happen.

A number of commentators have suggested that American poets, hurt and angered by the public disregard, even disdain, for their rôle and sacrifice, have withdrawn to themselves and their admirers for succor and survival. On the face of it, this strategy seems logical as a human psychological response to rejection: “[The poet] must be indestructible as a poet until he is destroyed as a human being” (Delmore Schwartz). However, retreating to oneself represents a defeatist position; it neglects the real conflicts of the culture and instead seeks comfort for the individual writer. Essentially, we now have legions of poets—Donald Hall has estimated that some 40 million Americans write poetry—busily creating verses which they attempt to “sell,” ordinarily without pay, to anyone willing to heed or read them. The number of takers is precious few in most cases, and the wares they attempt to market remain largely self-conceived and self-circumscribed. In practice, many of today’s poets unconsciously concede that their work is useless without understanding or accepting the true social utility of poetry, which, for the most part, lies dormant except at weddings and funerals.

If poetry, and maybe all art, finds its sustaining roots in pain and sacrifice on behalf of the culture, then it makes sense that it should seek replenishment there. To Aristotle is attributed the aphorism that the writer should think like a philosopher and write for the common man (and woman), which grows out of his advocacy in The Poetics for diction that is at once clear, composed of “ordinary words for things,” and yet contains “strange words, metaphors . . . and everything that deviates from the ordinary modes of speech.” In the past several years, major efforts have been initiated to bring poets and the public together. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project—a great popular and marketing success—has bridged gaps between Americans of all walks of life and poets both living and dead. Reading series, poetry slams, and conferences at public venues have further narrowed the distance between writers and readers. This is only a start, but it represents a new effort of reaching out toward the broader public after the rarefied modernist and postmodernist movements.

From the point of view of literary history, popularizing poetry to mainstream American society requires a reorientation from decadent late romanticism, or Northrop Frye’s ironic “mythos of winter,” to a more public mode of literary discourse that “transcends or illuminates the ills of modern life” (Christopher Clausen). Poets need to evolve beyond the postconfessional lyric and the American obsession with self in order to make their work accessible and relevant in a time of many challenges and much confusion. The pain of contemporary writers is by no means unique, but we are the first generation to be threatened by multi-national corporate capitalism and widespread degradation of the global environment, as well as by dozens of searingly tragic conflicts and atrocities. The pain of trying to create and sustain a fulfilling individual life in the midst of deeply troubling realities must be somehow transmuted and “purchased” by today’s artists on behalf of the entire culture. This is a daunting task, but one that offers, as always, great potential for solace, growth, and renewal, for ourselves as well as for others.


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