Miriam Culy on Pain Poetry

Young Poets Networker Miriam Culy explores the theme of physical pain in poetry, and shares how writing has helped her cope with her own chronic illness.

Black and white photo of a woman's head and shoulders from behind; she is looking down as if in pain

When you learn about poetry in school, you often look at poems on love, nature or war, and perhaps God, beauty or death. You don’t very often look at poems based on pain, though. And I’m talking about physical pain, rather than the emotional hurt of a broken heart. There are very few famous or historical poets who consistently explore pain in their work; the main exception to this is Emily Dickinson:

Pain Has An Element of Blank
by Emily Dickinson

Pain has an element of blank; 
It cannot recollect 
When it began, or if there were 
A day when it was not. 

It has no future but itself, 
Its infinite realms contain 
Its past, enlightened to perceive 
New periods of pain

Physical pain may not be common in many well-known poems, but it is starting to emerge in contemporary poetry and it’s the main focus of mine.

I’ve lived with M.E. (Myalgic Encephalitis, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) for the last ten years – since I was eight years old. It is something that you have to live with, adapt to, and find ways to cope with, by thinking outside the box. But it’s not easy. For me, art was my escape, my coping mechanism and my passion – until the nerve pain in my wrists started, and it felt like my world turned upside down. I couldn’t hold a pen, a pencil or a paintbrush; I had to type most of my GCSE exams, learnt how to scribe maths and did a 10-hour art exam in finger-painting. But art could no longer be my escape. And so, I turned to poetry, which I define as “art with words”.

Photo of a paintbrush and some dark blue and black paint

At first, my poems were an outlet for the frustration that comes with chronic illness. A place where I could allow my anger to take over, because I didn’t have to be conscious of making people around me feel uncomfortable with the reality that I usually hide. I didn’t have to say “I’m fine” and plaster a fake smile on my face. I could be truthful and say the things I rarely told other people. It also allowed me to process the new way of living I had to adopt: I wrote about the laptops and the scribes, my desire to draw and all the other adjustments that had been put in place. All the things that separated me from the “normal” way of doing things.

It’s Not Just the Pain
by Miriam Culy

It’s not just the pain that is frustrating,
It’s having it every day.

It’s not just the pain that is frustrating,
It’s the fact it never goes away.

It’s not just the pain that is frustrating,
It’s the things it stops me doing.

It’s not just the pain that is frustrating,
It’s that no-one else understands.

No-one else understands,
No-one else knows the struggle,
No-one else knows the pains
Making it frustrating and isolating.

But then as time went on, my poems became tools to explain to people what it was like to live with M.E. For many people, it’s hard to comprehend what it it’s like to constantly have to consider the impacts of any simple activity on your pain and energy levels, if it’s not a situation you have been in. No-one can claim to truly understand chronic pain unless they have been through it themselves, but my poems provide a window into what my life is really like.

Swing Me Round
by Miriam Culy

‘Swing me round!’
she asks, with excitement
and glittering eyes.
‘I can’t,’ I say,
‘My back hurts.’
‘But you did it at the start!’

And you can see the confusion
of a 5 year old –
she doesn’t understand
the barriers that pain holds,
that I may be fine one moment
then later I’m in pain,
and I can’t do
the same thing again.

I began sharing my poems with peers, teachers and friends of friends to help them understand what I go through. And that helped both me and them massively. People became more supportive, and I didn’t have to keep explaining myself because my poems had done it for me. I printed out booklets of my poems and collected donations for Action for M.E., a charity which supports those with M.E. and raises awareness for the condition. I was surprised to discover that my readers knew others with M.E. or similar debilitating conditions, and amazed that my poetry could help them, too. It gave others the words of explanation that they had been searching for.

Content warning: violent imagery

The Monster
by Miriam Culy

When you were young
You may have been scared
That there was a monster under your bed,
Or hiding in your wardrobe,
Or in the cupboard under the stairs.

But that monster was just fantasy.

Now there’s a monster lurking
Deep down below,
Where no-one else can see.
There’s a monster lurking
Deep down below,
It’s real, and it’s attacking me.

It stabs me in the back at night
When I am trying to sleep,
And during the day it doesn’t cease.
Every day, of every week.

It punches me in the stomach,
And burns my ankles with fire.
It crushes my head, like in a vice,
And pierces my wrists with wire.

Sometimes the monster hides away,
But it’s often out to fight.
We battle through the light of day
And late into the night.

Then at last, when I finally
Manage to get a wink of sleep,
I wake up in the morning
And the fight starts within a blink.

The battle goes over and over
Every day of every week.
The Monster never stops fighting
And never wants to cease.

I am now able to do some art again, if I wear medicated plasters on my wrists that numb the pain and don’t do it for too long in one go. But poetry is always going to be one of my passions and, rather ironically, is a way for me to escape the pain and fatigue that would otherwise overwhelm me.

How you can write poems about pain

Pain is individual to everyone. No two people experience it in the same way. And although not everyone has a chronic illness, everyone experiences pain in one way or another. It may be physical, emotional or psychological. It could be a mental health condition, an injury or an ill loved one. For me, poetry has been the best way of dealing with these problems.

The most important element is the brutal honesty: the way it really feels, that you don’t tell anyone else. And no one has to see your poems if you don’t want them to. It can be your personal, private outlet of pain, anger and hurt.

In my case, pain is nearly always accompanied by frustration. A poem is an opportunity to let go of that. At first, don’t worry about the structure or metre or the length of your stanzas: let your emotions lead you and go with it. Find the words that convey your feelings about the pain and run with them. You can always edit it into a more poetic structure later! I have found it really rewarding to be able to turn my pain into art and creatively address the frustration I feel.

Further reading

Photo of Miriam Culy, a young white woman with glasses and straight shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a turtle-neck jumper and a pink headbandMiriam Culy is an eighteen-year-old with M.E., who enjoys poetry, painting and philosophy, and is going to study Philosophy at Keele University, starting in September 2020.

One thought on “Miriam Culy on Pain Poetry

  1. i haven’t really gone through that and of pain in my life. always thought everybody.s lives are miserable but mine is the most. surely i will reconsider thinking that way from now on. you are courageous. a lot more than me.

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