Words and Pain: two poems by Miroslav Holub

This post is modified from the original on Peachleaves.

When I was teaching an introductory literature course organized around the concepts of comedy and tragedy, one of my toughest sells was that it is possible–desirable, sometimes–to take apart a joke to see what makes it funny. Thinking critically about humor really brought home the overarching point of my course–which was that language is instrumental in constructing how we understand the world, and that while we surely do construct sentences and create meaning, sometimes the meaning is already there before we get there, meaning all kinds of things above and beyond what it sounds like. (Undergrads hate this, at first.  “Aren’t we reading too much into it?” they plead.  Once they start noticing patterns themselves, they’re all over it.)

And yet it’s even harder to break down the perception of the tragic. Our impulse to laugh that feels so instinctual that we resist breaking it down into smaller parts, but it’s easy enough to get a roomful of undergrads to giggle and then to talk about how it’s done. It’s rather less desirable to lead them into a bodily experience of sadness or pain.

Around that time, I was scanning a book about modern drama and came across this beautiful poem, used to illustrate a point about the difference between the way we understand language in novels vs. plays. The title is translated as “Brief Reflection on the Word Pain,” by Miroslav Holub, a Czech immunologist who also publishes poetry.

Wittgenstein says the words ‘It hurts’ have replaced
tears and cries of pain.  The word ‘Pain’
does not describe the expression of pain but replaces it.
Replaces and displaces it.
Thus it creates a new behavior pattern
in the case of pain.

The word comes between us and the pain
like a pretence of silence.
It is a silencing.  It is a needle
unpicking the stitch
between blood and clay.

I sought out Holub’s collection, Vanishing Lung Syndrome, much of which continues to play on the tension between scientific knowledge and visceral knowledge, and between the metaphors of language and the metaphors of (yeah, I said it!) science.  This is the first poem in the volume, called “1751.”

   That year Diderot began to publish his Encyclopedia, and the first
insane asylum was founded in London.
So the counting out began, to separate the sane, who veil themselves
in words, from the insane, who rip feathers from their bodies.

Poets had to learn tightrope-walking.
And just to make sure, officious dimwits began to publish
instructions on how to be normal.

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