“These kind of wounds,/They last and they last”: On Taylor Swift, Wounded Reading, and Metaphor

content warning: suicide



I recently designed an undergraduate English class at my institution called “Rhetoric and Poetics,” named after two of Aristotle’s treatises. Because I love metaphor, which is both rhetorical and poetic, I decided to build the class around metaphor. 

I also decided to build the class around metaphor because I’m wounded—because I needed to heal. This is also, perhaps, why I’m a poet.

In Sean Thomas Dougherty’s poem “Why Bother?” the speaker says,

Because right now there is   someone

out there with

a wound               in the exact shape

                          of your words.


I shared this poem with my class, as well as what Todd Kaneko posted to Facebook about it after the release of Dougherty’s book The Second O Of Sorrow (BOA Editions, 2018): 

When students ask me why they should study creative writing, I often turn to our department literature about jobs and careers and internships, but I think I'll start giving them this awesome poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty from his newest book The Second O of Sorrow, because no matter how I answer that question about why one would sacrifice so much to devote themselves to creative writing, this is what I really mean.

Kaneko’s interpretation of the poem’s central metaphor holds that writing can heal wounds by witnessing them (perhaps our own as well as others’). Think here of poetry as the packing in an open wound as it heals from the inside out. The words themselves don’t do the healing; in fact, they hold the top of the wound open. Some wounds must be held open to heal.

One student in my class read “Why Bother?” as a concrete poem—the lines on both sides of the page seem to form around an opening, a wound. Another argued you can read it as a contrapuntal, as, grammatically, Dougherty’s poem can be read both left to right down the page—“Because right now, there is someone/out there with/a wound in the exact shape/of your words”—and left column followed by right column—“Because right now, there is/out there with/a wound/someone/in the exact shape/of your words.” What’s different between these two readings is subtle; in the latter, the words don’t mirror the wound itself, but, rather, the person with the wound. (“Two things can be true at the same time,” I tell my class.)

“[I]t’s hard to be at a party when I feel like an open wound,” Taylor Swift sings in “this is me trying” (folklore). These words inhabit my wound. These words inhabit me, the person with the wound, the person-as-wound.



Alicia Ostriker opens her essay “Metaphor and Healing: Or, Why Metaphor Is Not a Bandage” with this question: “We think we know what metaphor is, and what metaphor does. But do we?” (88). If your elementary school training resembled mine, you probably learned, as I did, to shout, nasally, with your fellow second graders, “METAPHOR IS A COMPARISON THAT DOESN’T USE ‘LIKE’ OR ‘AS.’” But as Aristotle explains in his Rhetoric, “[t]he Simile also is a metaphor.” (Two things can be true at the same time.)

Ostriker offers us some alternative definitions for “metaphor.” She points to its etymology, “a carrying across,” to explain that “[m]etaphor is that which joins, that which announces connection, overlap, shared essence, and yet retains the actual distance between whatever objects it brings together” (89). She expounds on this, offering what amounts to my favorite definition of metaphor, that metaphor is “an agreement that the distance between two things is cancellable because of their likeness, whereby each illuminates some inner truth belonging to the other” (90). 

And she argues that metaphor “embodies the potential for healing” (88). But to talk about metaphor is to talk not only about healing, but also about failure: agreeing that the distance between two things is cancellable because of their likeness does illuminate inner truths belonging to each, but agreeing that the distance between two things is cancellable cannot actually cancel the distance between them. Metaphor “retains the actual distance” between them.

To pack and heal the wound you also have to acknowledge the wound. You have to hold it open.



This summer my wife and I saw Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour in Pittsburgh. When Swift confidently kissed her own flexed bicep before singing “The Man” (Lover), the third song on the tour setlist, a feminist anthem acknowledging the gendered double standards that oppress women, I wanted to kiss my own bicep and high-five her from across the stadium. 

Later she sang one of my favorite songs, “my tears ricochet,” a track from folklore, which opens with an extended metaphor of the speaker’s own funeral: “We gather here, we line up/Weepin’ in a sunlit room, and/If I’m on fire, you’ll be made of ashes too.” Textual evidence suggests it’s a painful failed love affair that has “killed” the speaker and precipitated the song’s titular tears, but the twist is that the beloved is now suffering too:


                  You had to kill me, but it killed you just the same

                  Cursing my name, wishing I stayed

                  You turned into your worst fears

                  And you’re tossing out blame, drunk on this pain

                  Crossing out the good years

                  And you’re cursing my name, wishing I stayed

                  Look at how my tears ricochet

I’ve had my own share of painful failed love affairs, and though I’m now happily married, many of Swift’s lyrics have provided me witness for the residual grief that has sometimes lingered long after I’d accepted “The Story of Us” (Speak Now) was over. But as I cried—unabashedly—to “my tears ricochet,” it wasn’t an ex-lover I was mourning. I sang along in the stadium as Swift’s lyrics packed the slow-healing wound of my father’s suicide, the wound that formed almost twenty years ago “in the exact shape/of [Swift’s] words” and in the exact shape of his own intraoral gunshot wound. (“The wound path passed through the midline palate, basilar skull transecting the brainstem and cerebellum and terminating in the posterior parietal lobes in the midline,” reads his autopsy report.)



I’ve become accustomed to a certain level of favor and popularity as an English instructor—in part because I model honesty and vulnerability in my classrooms. If I’m being honest, though, my class on metaphor has been a bit of a tough sell for the students required to take it. Many of them are STEM majors who avoid poetry because they’ve felt more wounded than healed by it. 

Many of them are also, however, Swifties. So one afternoon I passed out the lyrics to “my tears ricochet” and played the song at the beginning of class, both to open a discussion about the metaphors Swift uses in the text and to present my relationship to the song as an example of what Arthur W. Frank calls “vulnerable reading.” Frank explains that vulnerable reading “could as well be called wounded reading, or reading for solace, or [his] overly long favorite: ‘reading to get you through the night, when the night is bitter and you’re sick at heart’” (396). He argues that “[t]he core goal of vulnerable reading is to offer people access to stories that make them feel less alone” (402). 

Vulnerable reading, in some ways, contrasts the kind of close reading I typically ask for in the classroom. Trained primarily in a New Critical paradigm, I teach student readers to make arguments about what texts are doing and saying based on evidence—first and foremost from these texts themselves. 

“Vulnerable reading is not for everyone,” Frank argues—“It is not for those concerned with aesthetic and literary evaluations,” for example (403). Can’t it be, though?—I want to ask. After all, I am concerned with aesthetic and literary evaluations (including those of Taylor Swift—I taught a course called “@TaylorSwift_as_Literature” before NYU and Harvard were in the news for their Taylor Swift courses). I’m also concerned, though, with the ways texts may pack our wounds.

Frank does conclude that “everyone, sooner or later in her or his life, will probably need vulnerable reading” (403). Two things can be true at the same time.



My father and I hadn’t spoken in over two months when he died. I didn’t know he was going to kill himself. (I don’t think he knew that yet either.) And the last things we said to each other were awful. When he died, we were both “out there with/a wound in the exact shape/of [each other’s] words.”

When I hear “my tears ricochet,” I imagine my father’s voice when Swift sings “And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” and, then, again, when she sings

                  You know I didn’t want to have to haunt you

                  But what a ghostly scene

                  You wear the same jewels that I gave you

                  As you bury me

But I could just as easily be the speaker of the next two lines: “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace/‘Cause when I’d fight, you used to tell me I was brave.”

The metaphorical connections I’m talking about here are not just the ways Swift agrees to cancel the distance between a breakup and a death, or between a heartbreak and a haunting. I’m also talking about the ways that my wounded reading agrees to cancel the distance between the content of her song and the content of my own grief. I’m also talking about how, for the length of the song and its wake of metaphors (pun—almost always—intended), I agree to cancel the distance between my father and me. (Look at how my tears ricochet.)



I know I contrasted vulnerable reading with the kind of close reading paradigm in which I’ve been trained as a writer and teacher. But I don’t actually believe wounded reading is anti-academic, just as I don’t think feeling is the opposite of thinking. Poems “are both arterial and venous,” Mary Ruefle argues in Madness, Rack, and Honey—“They give pleasure—or put a lump in our throats—and they make us think” (45). This is what metaphors do too.

Frank says that “[t]he first level of vulnerable reading” is metaphorical: in the text that witnesses and comforts us, we see “a mirror of our own predicament” (406). 

“I’m a mirrorball/I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight,” sings Swift (“mirrorball,” folklore), agreeing to cancel the distance between us.

“We cry tears of mascara in the bathroom/Honey, life is just a classroom,” she assures me (“New Romantics,” 1989). 

And so I keep bringing my life into the classroom, where we do the healing work of both feeling and thinking.



Billie R. Tadros is an Associate Professor in the Department of English &Theatre at The University of Scranton, where she also directs the concentration in Health Humanities and teaches courses in the Women's & Gender Studies program. She earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and her M.F.A. in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and she is a graduate of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University. She is the author of three books of poems, Graft Fixation (Gold Wake Press, 2020), Was Body (Indolent Books, 2020), and The Tree We Planted and Buried You In (Otis Books, 2018). 

The cover image for this story was taken by Paolo Villanueva, @itspaolopv.