‘The Wound’ is a poem about the pain and scars inflicted by words. Stone uses an impactful series of images and figurative language to illustrate their effect on the speaker. As shock gives way to recognition, the wound itself starts to evolve from just a hurtful grouping of sounds uttered by an unknown person into something far more tangible.
Explore The Wound
‘The Wound’ by Ruth Stone describes with raw clarity the evolution of a wound inflicted by words of hostility directed at the speaker.
‘The Wound’ narrates the aftermath of the speaker hearing words of anger that have been spoken to them by an unknown person. The reader never discovers what exactly was said or even the specific context or emotions that caused them to be voiced. All that’s described is the gradual growth of the wound that’s been inflicted upon the speaker. At first, all they register is the shock of hearing such words, and it’s even implied that the words themselves are not unambiguous.
But once they understand the hidden meaning behind those seemingly ordinary words, the pain matures rather rapidly — enlarging from a few sores to the size of a head. But then further mutations occur as it develops eyes and a mouth as well. The poem ends with the speaker explaining that the wound has become somewhat of a friend, though it’s unclear if that relationship is benign or malignant in nature as it keeps the speaker from ever moving on from the pain, serving as a constant reminder of the moment of vitriol that created it.
Structure and Form
‘The Wound’ is composed of eleven couplets written in free verse. There is no rhyme scheme or definite meter. Stone uses both end-stopped lines and enjambment to keep the speaker’s real-time descriptions swift and succinct. The organization of the poem into couplets also helps establish the sequenced nature of their thought process, pacing out their realizations and the evolution of the wound as interconnected but distinct moments and images.
‘The Wound’ relies on a variety of literary devices that include personification: “something the throat wanted to say” (10); “After a while it becomes an old friend” (21). There is also an example of metaphor: “every syllable becomes a sore” (12); and simile: “The shock comes slowly / as an afterthought” (1-2)
Stone also employs visual imagery: “The body bends to accommodate it” (14); and kinesthetic imagery: “breathing out of lips, / moving toward you in a straight line” (5-6); “they shatter / and rearrange themselves” (7-8).
The shock comes slowly
First you hear the words
‘The Wound’ opens with the speaker describing the latent shock they experience when hearing certain ambiguous words. As its title suggests, the words spoken to the speaker are emotionally scarring. But these first two couplets illustrate the surprise of hearing such hurtful words for the first time and the delay that comes with the realization such things have been said to you.
ordinary, breathing out of lips,
Later they shatter
The speaker lucidly observes that, at first, the hurtful words sound as “ordinary” as any others. Before meaning and context have sunk in, they are understood as just noise being emitted from the vocal cords. They emerge “breathing out of lips, / moving toward you in a straight line” (5-6). That passive piece of kinesthetic imagery explodes in the preceding couplet: the words “shatter / and rearrange themselves” (7-8), a violent depiction that their harsh meaning is beginning to reveal itself to the speaker.
something else hidden in the muscles
Decoded, the message etches itself in acid
In this pair of couplets, it becomes clear that the ambiguous words spoken to the reader might not be explicitly mean. These lines describe the person from whom the words originated, and they insinuate that what’s spoken carries some amount of unspoken vitriol: “something else hidden in the muscles / of the face, something the throat wanted to say” (9-10). But once that message is “decoded” (11), the venomous pain they hold is released. A piece of visceral imagery sears the emotion into the reader’s mind as well as the speaker’s as it “etches itself in acid / so every syllable becomes a sore” (11-12).
The shock blooms into a carbuncle.
A special scarf has to be worn to conceal it.
This next sequence of couplets in ‘The Wound’ continue to describe the pain of enduring the infliction of the words spoken to the speaker. Now that the meaning has been understood, the shock they originally had “blooms into a carbuncle” (13), a kind of abscess swollen and irritated that builds on the grotesque imagery that compares the syllables to sores.
The speaker then describes the way the force of the words forces their body to bend to “accommodate it” (14). Here the speaker details the methods of adapting to the effect of the words upon them, comparing the emotional harm in terms of physical ailments. A “special scarf” is now worn to hide the wound, and the sore or abscess is described as now being the “size of a head” (16). With each passing moment, the insult and hurt only grow more severe, and no remedy can curb it — all the speaker can do is try and obscure it.
The next time you look,
It is difficult to know which to use.
The next two couplets see the wound evolving into something far more surreal — if not slightly horrifying. In a twisted use of personification, the speaker describes how the wound has now “grown two eyes and a mouth” (18). A mutated form is conjured up in the reader’s mind as the wound that was once just a sore has now grown into a tumorous twin. The absurdity is made momentarily frivolous when the speaker remarks being unsure “which to use” (19) and that they’re now seeing double because of the extra-sensory organs.
After a while it becomes an old friend.
The final couplet of ‘The Wound’ is somewhat ambiguous in terms of the speaker’s relationship with their personified injury. As time goes by, they come to refer to it as an “old friend” (21), a label that could convey everything from cultivated affection to abject familiarity. Either way, it’s clear the speaker has now learned to live with the wound that’s been inflicted.
We’re not even told if they’ve reconciled or remain estranged from the person who spoke the words to them in the first place. Instead, the poet chooses to focus on this new relationship with the wound itself. A poignant metaphor for how one comes to live with the scars of a harbored insult and its constant reminder of the maliciousness that created it.
The poem’s theme revolves around the speaker’s relationship with the wound itself. The poem is ambiguous about whether or not the speaker has truly, healthily come to terms with the wound suffered. All we’re told is that it’s become a permanent and familiar part of their identity and memory. In this way, the poem communicates the lasting effects of even verbal insults.
The wound serves as an extended metaphor for the pain inflicted by the words spoken to the speaker. The rapidity with which they are transformed from something intangible to a physical part of the speaker underscores their effect.
Another piece of ambiguity in the poem is the words that are actually said to the reader. A possible reason Stone chose to not include them is best gleaned from the title itself, which asserts a focus on the effect of the words and not the words themselves. That effect on the speaker is made distressingly clear throughout the poem, and its intensity conveys the virulent nature of the words.
The poem captures the immediate and long-term effects of a verbal insult, one that Stone no doubt based on a real experience. Who hasn’t endured such a wound? The details might be withheld, but that ambiguity only allows the poem to fit more universally into each reader’s experience.
- ‘There is a pain—so utter’ by Emily Dickinson – this poem explores with overwhelming intensity and honesty the effects of pain on a person.
- ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson – this poem looks at an expression of emotion that’s a bit more positive but no less intense.
- ‘Acquainted with the Night’ by Robert Frost – this poem symbolizes depression as a solitary stroll through the night.