Listen better

Arthur W. Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller, which I’m currently reading, deals with medical ethics, personal narrative, illness, and the community (all of us, really) who may need care, give care, and/or who realize there is a socio-emotional impact when friends, coworkers, and family members become ill and thus require care. A sociologist by training, Frank examines illness stories as testimonies that point to a social ethic and asks all of us both to tell more when we experience pain and to listen better when others are telling us about their experiences of illness.

“Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”

Mary Oliver, from “Wild Geese

At first this idea sounds unpleasant–one thinks of the stereotype of tedious conversations among the elderly about various surgeries and too-intimate revelations about prostates, livers, stomachs, and bowels (my dad calls these monologues “organ recitals”). That response–evasion, withdrawal, revulsion–is exactly what Frank seeks to change.

But then I consider the way I have heard stories of illness experience from hospice patients. How varied they can be. Some fragmented, some specific, some pious, some stoic, some anxious. And some that are beautiful. These stories aren’t just for (about) the person who has undergone the suffering. They are also for me, the listener. “When any person recovers his voice,” says Frank, “many people begin to speak through that story.”

He later writes:

One of our most difficult duties as human beings is to listen to the voices of those who suffer. The voices of the ill are easy to ignore, because these voices are often faltering in tone and mixed in message, particularly in their spoken form before some editor has rendered them fit for reading by the healthy. These voices bespeak conditions of embodiment that most of us would rather forget our own vulnerability to. Listening is hard, but it is a fundamental moral act…in listening for the other, we listen for ourselves. The moment of witness in the story crystallizes a mutuality of need, when each is for the other.

He would like to see an ethics among medical people and caregivers that dictates not just a compassion for the lot of the ill person but a perspective that the person, as a person, is not diminished by the fact of illness–not made into data, case study, or even into patient or client, any of which reduces the person to a body containing disease or disability. He argues for a full embodiment of pain in narrative as well as in physiology, for only with and through storytelling can we begin to experience the perspective of the other.

I am not very far into the book yet, but I’m finding the concepts relevant to my current life circumstances. I know how deeply I treasure a good listener. So working on listening better, myself, offers more people the chance to recover their voices, to speak through story.



Teachers of creative writing have mixed views about the use of prompts (a prompt is an image, phrase, visual, question, or anything else meant to get a poet started in lieu of–or in addition to–“inspiration”). I have found them useful for practice; in my experience, occasionally a random prompt does result in a serviceable, or even good, poem. But I do not tend to use them regularly.

During this month of writing and posting a poem draft each and every day, I haven’t turned to prompts. I notice, though, that the drafts are perhaps more personal than I expected them to be.

This one doesn’t have a title yet:


Today there’s pain
opening with every blossom,
the pain of others
far from you, and also
those nearby. Even yours.
You see the world
as it is, how each bloom
attracts tiny ants
and the industrious bee,
later transforming
into hard green fruit.

Today you suffer the way
all things suffer
although you breathe
sweet air, although you
see the constant sun
now and then appearing
between dense, mobile clouds–
joy, flickering, brief,
but always possible.
Isn’t that also how
the world is? The cat’s
fur, soft beneath your
stroking thumb. Thrushes
uttering melodies for
anyone who will hear.


Words for pain

On Wednesday, I spent a long time in conversation with an anxious dear one who was despondent over US election results. I am not the only person who engaged in such dialogues that day, but what stays with me is the way I described the conversation later–to another friend. The phrase I used was “talking her down off a ledge.” It was, thankfully, just a harmless metaphor, an exaggeration (she was not suicidal, merely distressed). Nonetheless, having recently considered the ways we express pain linguistically and how hard it is to express pain of any kind in a manner that conveys anything to other people [see blog on Scarry], I stopped to think about the figure of speech I had employed.

Emotional pain hurts, after all, as much as physical pain. What else might I have said?

I could have said, “I spent 20 minutes calming her down.” Not as vivid, but less violent. Yet isn’t that what poets and writers want–vividness? Some sort of language that elicits visceral response…and the metaphors or war, violence, and harm are the default phrases and symbols to which we turn.spinal-cord-injury-pain

We learn these word-images when we are very young, often before we understand the violent origin of the metaphor. So I wonder whether the connection is as clear as some theorists suspect. But there’s no denying that pain = harming imagery, because pain is harm. Stabbing, throbbing, pounding. That’s pain. Emotionally, too: we feel wounded, we feel broken, damaged, hurt. Anxiety feels painful; stress feels painful– “The stress is killing me!” Pretty clear connections there.

I have been challenging myself to write poems about pain (physical, existential, mental, emotional) and to discover whether I can make the sense of pain come through in words as something other than self- or other-harm; whether I can use non-violent images to convey pain, and to reframe it in the body and in the consciousness.

So far?

Not a lot of success, but some interesting drafts that sound slightly surreal or hallucinatory. There is a bonus here, though, in that I have created a difficult writing prompt and, at the same time, given myself some insights into the connections between mind and body (Descartes, you old rascal) and language.


& more difficult books…

Difficult books” ends up being one of my most-blogged-about topics. I like to challenge my brain with concepts that rattle the typical, with texts that force me to slow down and puzzle through my tangled thoughts. Right now, I am slowly reading two difficult but extremely rewarding books: Ann Lauterbach‘s The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience and Elaine Scarry‘s The Body in Pain.

Both of these writers use plenty of source material that synthesizes (or sometimes argues with) their concepts and explorations. In many cases, these are books new to me, but Lauterbach also quotes from and is inspired by some of my own favorites: Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, William James. Lauterbach combines what my students would call a geeky interest in theory (literary and social) with anecdote, musings, and a collaged or transgressive approach to the argument or critique. This is to say I admit I do not always know where she is going with her essays, even at the close of them. And yet–her interweavings fascinate, her choices surprise. She’s a master of the pithy definition (“Poetry is…”), but she allows for many perspectives, many definitions.


Brad Hammonds/Flickr Creative Commons

Scarry’s text covers a different domain, though theory certainly has a place in her book. The Body in Pain examines what pain is–semiotically, physically, its interiority, its defining characteristics, the portrayal of pain in art and literature and what that tells us about the body, the Self, and the shared understanding but individual experience of pain. I have not gotten much beyond the second chapter of her book, but I already feel myself inquisitive about aspects of human pain that I had never even considered before; who thinks about pain except when feeling, or anticipating feeling, pain? Of course we know what pain is–until we try to describe our experience of it to another person.

I’ve had that frustrating experience numerous times (here’s Ally Brosch of Hyperbole & a Half with the best solution to pain charts), but I have not devoted much time to exploring why pain is so individual despite our universal recognition of its existence; also, it had not occurred to me why we so often doubt others’ pain. Scarry says we have developed no particular understanding of the phenomenon, one reason she undertook the writing of this book.

Meanwhile, the semester continues apace and my students are interested in argument after all, it appears; and the bounty of late tomatoes has arrived with much processing to do before they all rot. My time spent blogging will be brief in the coming weeks. 🙂


Painfully conscious

I’ve just finished reading Melanie Thernstrom’s 2011 book The Pain Chronicles, a journalist’s inquiry into the concepts that “define” pain and the medical discoveries concerning chronic pain, in addition to a bit of memoir as a narrative device. Although I have experience with chronic pain myself, the part of the text that most interested me comes in her concluding chapters, in which she gathers the variously-disciplined evidence of her enterprise to suggest that pain is the ultimate test of the mind-body problem (thank you, RenĂ© Descartes). The experts Thernstrom interviews disagree on how much we do know or can know about the human brain and how it processes anything, let alone such a complicated psycho-physiological event as pain. Some of them believe human beings will make enormous technological discoveries to unlock our brains’ workings, but the majority seem to have learned from research that each “a-ha!” leads only to further complications. Discussing the outlook for future fMRI scanning in brain research, Dr. John Keltner tells the author:

[N]obody has come up with a rich and complicated enough model to analyze the complexity of the distributed patterns of neural  networks and deduce anything like underlying rules…We’re literally grappling with the fundamental aspects of human beings. We naively believed that pain is simple–it hurts or it doesn’t hurt–so there should be a single brain state we could see every time someone is in pain. But what we’ve stumbled into is the discovery that there’s a relative universe of hurt–that hurting is an immense, rich, and varied human experience associated with an unknown number of possible brain states.

I find some of these analogies, and some of this language, appealing–I can think of poems that express “a universe of hurt.” I embrace the idea that hurting is immense, rich, varied, and human–we are aware (conscious) that we hurt, that others hurt, that hurt can be painful even when it is not caused by a toothache but through loss of a friend or lover…the beloved other, the pain in ourselves. Isn’t compassion born of this awareness? Does art have a place here, too? I wonder.

Thernstrom concludes with the agreement of several expert researchers: “pain and suffering are properties of the mind” [my italics]. That means pain is, at least in part, a property of that elusive thing we generally call consciousness. Scott Fishman of UC Davis explains that “[t]he mind is like a virtual organ–it doesn’t  have a physical address that we know of.” Consciousness, these researchers imply, is not merely the sum of firing neurons, a process that can be considered on some level mechanical. Thernstrom asks, “Do we need to understand consciousness itself in order to understand pain?”

If so, that is a tall order, one the author posits is analogous to understanding aesthetics (what is beauty?). But though the task appears daunting, the discoveries en route make the trek valuable.

Even if we never understand the answer.

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University