‘Pain –’ Dickinson wrote ‘has an Element of Blank –’. With this first line from a poem, Dickinson highlights an aspect of suffering that includes numbness. ‘Pain’ can have a blankness to it, a lack, a terrible nothingness.
John Keats also had this aspect of anguish in mind when he began ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: ‘My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense’. However, when Dickinson writes about pain, she is not just analysing the feeling: she is interrogating how to write about pain. According to Dickinson, writing about any emotion must include a ‘blank’, white space, a dash, or some nothingness. These moments of blank replace the emotional language a reader might have expected.
‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–‘ she wrote in another poem. Poetry must include slants and blanks. Dickinson uses her characteristic dashes and white space to replace the words the speaker refuses to utter.
Pain — has an Element of Blank —
It cannot recollect
When it begun — or if there were
A time when it was not —
It has no Future — but itself —
Its Infinite contain
Its past — enlightened to perceive
New Periods — of Pain.
After the word ‘Pain’ the dash hides the source of the pain. This sort of ‘hiding’ takes places throughout the poem. Another instance of it would be after ‘When it begun –‘. The dash that follows ‘begun’ covers any associations or memory of the pain’s origin.
Dickinson’s poetry enacts the process of denial and repression we go through during a time of distress. This is what makes the speaker seem so vulnerable: the denial is a sign that the pain exists and is overwhelming. One cannot be vulnerable without some denial, without some attempt to turn away from suffering. Ironically, poets can most successfully communicate and elicit emotion by not acknowledging that emotion. Narrative is often removed, fragmented. Emotional language is avoided. There are blanks. All emotion has an element of blank in this way. The unbearable (even unbearable joy) hovers beneath the surface of a poem appearing slant in the poem’s music, metaphors, and allusions. This is poetry.
[painting: Edge of Memory. Mixed Media. Joan Fullerton]