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The Table Video

Scott Cairns

"The End of Suffering" - Poet Scott Cairns on the Poetics of Suffering and Pain CCT Pastors Lunch

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English, University of Missouri
July 2, 2019
Poet Scott Cairns on the Poetics of Suffering and Pain and the question of how does poetry approach the problem of suffering?


So you know that I go to Mount Athos, which is in Greece, and hang out with monks. I recommend it. But so if you look at a map, this is a map of Greece, and then if we do a closeup on this part, it looks like that. And these are the three peninsulas going into the Aegean. This is Agian Oros, the holy mountain, and that’s Mount Athos. This is Sithoni and this is Cassandra. Here is mostly beaches and resorts, and hardly any clothing, [audience laughs] and this is Sithonia where it’s a little more rugged and it’s camping and a little more clothing, therefore and this is monks. All monks all the time, and lots and lots of clothing. [audience laughs] But I go there because my spiritual father Iakovos is there, and I go and talk to him. But this was from an early meeting, and it was the idea of– I’ll read what happened, and then maybe during the Q and A we can talk about how it figures for us. So a father at one monastery helped me to see that prayer was itself an ongoing struggle. He likened the matter to that of Jacobs wrestling with the angel of the lord. And he helped me to glimpse that even the pain of that struggle was to be recognized as a blessing. You have to plead with him to meet you here, he said. And when he arrives, you must hold onto him and not let him go. Like Jacob, he said, you must hold on to him. And like Jacob, you must say I will not let you go unless you bless me.

And then the wound. The tender hip thereafter. The blessing. He is everything, the father continued. And ever-present. He is never not here. But when you plead to know that he is here, and he answers you and helps you to meet him here, you will be wounded by that meeting. The wound will help you know. And that is the blessing. It occurred to me that suffering occasions are the need for our coming to terms. We use that phrase a lot, coming to terms with this or that. But quite literally, when we’re talking about poets and suffering, or the poetics and suffering, it is quite literally a grasping, a grappling, a coming to terms. An articulation, that in some sense, I suppose it’s complicated. But when we have suffering, when we experience suffering in our lives, and we take the time to articulate how we feel, in prayer, or on paper, not to distinguish one from the other, ’cause writing on paper can certainly be a gesture of prayer. But whenever we search for the articulation, even just saying what happened, it’s an odd combination of a consolation, and an honoring of, say, the ones we’ve lost. It’s the memory of the pain, which has, I suppose, some efficacy. Simone Weil has said “affliction compels us to recognize as real what we do not think possible.” I wanna begin with a poem, Infirmities. “Some mornings you know you’ve seen things like this before. The kind woman across the street is lame, and her daughter is lame. Some defect they’ve had since birth is working to dissolve their bones.

The boy three doors down is blind, and the idiot girl who sweeps up at the market insists all day on her own strange tune. Sometimes they seem happy enough, and sometimes you might find one alone muffling grief with a coat sleeve. And the shy way the blind boy laughs when he stumbles makes you laugh with him some mornings. Some mornings it hurts to see. Chore. Of course, what we actually feel is too much. A grab bag of longing to be anything so simple as an emotion. What we actually feel could never be pinned down to a word. My father was dying, and I was home for a visit. I did a few chores to help us all get ready. To speak of how I felt would be a mistake. I was splitting firewood, loading the wood box. It was hard work, and I found some pleasure in it. I was at the back corner of my father’s house, a place I hadn’t seen in years, working easily and while my shirt off in the last heat of summer. Wiping the sweat from my face, I looked up and saw him. Saw that he had been watching me. We met as well we we could. Behind him, a huge jay bowed a heavy branch. I pointed to the historical bird. Nothing much happened after that. I swung the ax until I finished the work. Another kiss. Far sweeter is a greeting, this parting of lips became the concluding gesture love would bear between my father and me. In this last hour of his death his fever had retreated so that as my kiss found the smooth passage of his neck I felt how the cold surprise was beginning there.

And so we waited. And I kept my sight fixed upon his face, which worked with less conviction, which appeared to acquiesce. I studied his preference for fainter effort, the softening of his brow, the rounding edges, and, as if he could speak, the slight movement of his lips nearly opening. All of this so I would remember the hour, and the moment of my father’s death, so I might rehearse the silent language of this final speech. His lungs were filling, and gave him less and less reason to breathe. Lifting briefly, his lips in the semblance of a kiss, and a kiss, a third kiss, he was gone.” I’m gonna read you a poem that I wrote. Attempts to work at some manner of consolation. I just remember reading a review of the book that it first appeared in, in which the reviewer manifested how little he understood about persona poems, and that he was saying Mr. Carriage has written eloquently about his surprising, for a young man, his surprising heart attack, and the cancer he has survived. Well it’s not me, it’s my father. But he didn’t know that. He just didn’t know that when poets– Poets make stuff up a lot. [audience laughs] It’s not a good bet to assume that the speaker of the poem is the poet. I’m just sayin’. Especially if you’re gonna write a review about it. I think you– [audience laughs] Well, this is the history of my late progress. And here again, it’s an attempt at language coming to terms, and in seeking consolation. So it’s how I imagine my father dealt with those difficult final years.

“The History of my Late Progress. First, what you might call the odd shoe dropping, the midlife, well, not, as it turns out, mid life, heart attack, not massive by clinical standards, but a close call, what with the fumbling technicians, a rough ride to emergency. I thought I was a goner. Not really, no one I guess ever really thinks that. The closest we come is this uncanny, dispassionate, sitting back, just watching, to see how we’ll be saved. And then I was. It was hard work for all of us and hard work for me thereafter, tasting the new bitterness. But any of this could end. My somatic recovery advanced passively. I agreed to medication, certain and acceptable restrictions. Diet, activity, and so on. I agreed to continue as if I’d gained new enthusiasm for simple things, like fishing, breathing, looking around. Still, I’d been struck, apparently not mid-stride, by a little surprise. As that chagrin faded, as the dose of bitterness sank from memory, I recalled something else. Dying, even if I hadn’t died, I’d been dying, had an unexpected slant. I mean, granted, I had watched those doctors, their technicians caught up, extravagant in their procedures, each of them of huge interest. But I was interesting too. Oddly unafraid. Troubled. But eager. It is my eagerness then that troubles me now. The exotic thought that I was more than just willing to see what would come.

Still, recovery is never complete, which is just as well. And in recent years, the interim, other developments, diabetes, the big C, here, then there, heart surgery. Each brought its own extreme demands. Each new chores. Graceless dispensations. Finally, once late sentiments catch up to what the body has long determined. Time. Time out. There has been labor here. One prefers to imagine there is a style of progress, even after, after here. So with the merest supposition, I proposed to recover something I had lost, had relinquished, and now just suspected. And in my so far severed circumstances, found agreeable. Vast and beckoning.” So I have a series of poems I wrote in an earlier book called Disciplinary Treatises. They were my wrestlings with theological concepts. I’ll only read a couple of them. Here’s one called On the Holy Spirit. “If upon taking up this is or any scripture, or upon lifting your one good eye to inspect the faintly green expanse of field already putting forth its late winter gauze of grasses. You come to suspect the hushed conversation underway. You may also find sufficient grounds to suspect that difficult disposition we call the ghost. River or thread drawn through us, which rippled as any taught rope might be lifts or drops us, as if riding a wave and which fends off for brief duration. Our dense encumberment of this flesh, its confusions. If not completely, if only enough that the burden be felt, just shy of crushing us.” And this one’s called The Embarrassment of Last Things. “Already you smile. Drop your eyes, chew your cheek, centuries of dire prophecy have taught us all to be, well, unconvinced. There’ve been decades, entire scores of years, when, to be frank, wholesale destruction didn’t sound so bad, considering.

You remember, we were all disappointed. That the world never ended meant we had to get out of bed after all. Swallow another dose of stale breath with our coffees, scrape the grim ice from our windshields one more time. On the way to work, stuck in endless traffic, the radio or some incredibly sincere bill board would promise us, again, an end to this. And for a moment, we almost see it. But we know it’s not an end. Not really. It’s harder than that. Some kind of strenuous chore stretching out ahead, like these stalled cars, showing our general direction, inadvertently or not, mocking our pace. Let’s not do that. Let’s not do that one. [audience laughs] Pain. “No new attempt at apology here. All suffer. Though few suffer anything like what they deserve. Still, there are the famous undeserving whose pain astonishes even the most unflinching disciples, whose own days have been consumed by hopeless explanation for that innocent whose torn face, or weeping burns, or ravenous disease, says, simply, no, not good enough. This is where we must begin. In commensurate pain. Nothing you can hope to finger into exposition. Nothing you can cover up. A fault. Unacceptable, and broad as life, gapes at your feet in the thin soil you stand upon, is giving way.” I’m gonna read you– It is, for some of you, holy Thursday. Holy Thursday! [audience laughs] So I’m gonna read the holy Thursday.

You people are in such a big rush to have your Easter already. We’re always a little behind you. Sometimes it’s a lot behind you, but it’s just a week this year. But I do wanna read this poem. So a long time ago I fell in love with Rabbinic genre of Midrash. I don’t know about you guys, but I was raised in a particularly cranky baptist church, [audience laughs] where you know if there was a part in the scriptures that didn’t make sense, we just skipped it. [audience laughs] But at some point in my education I came upon the Rabbinic genres, in particular the Rabbinic genre of Midrash, and it was clear to me that, well, the rabbis didn’t dodge the things that didn’t make sense. What they did was those are the ones they looked for. The ones that didn’t make sense. The ones that didn’t figure in what they thought of things. Because if there was a gap between what the scriptures were saying and what they thought, they trusted that it wasn’t the scriptures that were mistaken, and that in fact it was a call for them to pour over that text, to open that text, to wrestle with that text, and try to let it work on them and correct their misperceptions. So it turns out you can do that with the New Testament too. Find the things that don’t quite make sense, like for instance, this one. This is in Luke. It’s Christ has been in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night he was betrayed, and he’s been praying for quite a while actually when we come upon this. And being in an agony, he prayed more earnestly. I must have read that many many times, I noticed that that’s odd. What was he doing before he became earnest about his prayer? And being in an agony. This might also be a lesson to us. What does suffering do? What is the end or the purpose of suffering? And I suppose, like Simone Weil observes, affliction compels us to recognize as real what we had not thought possible. And being in an agony, something happened.

The agony occasioned a depth, an earnestness. Even for the lord. It’s called The More Earnest Prayer of Christ. “His last prayer in the garden began as most of his prayers began. In earnest, certainly, but not without distraction. And habitual what? Distance? Well, yes, a sort of distance, or a mute remove from the genuine distress he witnessed in the endlessly grasping hands of multitudes and often enough, in his own embarrassing circle of intimates, even now he could see these, where they slept, sprawled upon their robes or wrapped among the arching olive trees. Still, something new, unlikely, uncanny, was commencing as he spoke. As the divine in him contracted to an ache, a throbbing in the throat, his vision blurred, his voice grew thick and unfamiliar, his prayer, just before he fell to silence, became uniquely earnest. And in that moment, perhaps because it was so new, he saw something, had hist first taste of what he would become. First pure taste of the body and the blood.” I’m gonna read one more accompaniment to that. It’s called Another Crucifixion. We have Christ, and we have the good thief. This is the other. “The last of the three to die was the one who’s harsh words to the rabbi had availed for the third culprit the astonishing promise of paradise. The last of the three could no longer turn even his head. His body had stiffened. He did not dare close his eyes again. So affixed upon the rabbi’s face which had grown so utterly still, opaque. That the dying one observed a vivid mirroring of his own condition there. Or so he imagined, confused, struggling to see anything clearly, as that face blurred, he saw beyond to the one who’s shins were that moment cracking across the flat of a sword. That man too was clearly dead, and if, this day, he also swam in bliss, it didn’t show. The dying man would examine the dead rabbi one more time if he could, but finally knew the man was lost to his sight. He felt a tug far away at his feet, and a blade across his knees. He heard them crack and heard himself cry out. So far away, dying, he thought that if he could just glimpse the rabbi’s ruined face, he might suspect a kingdom even now.” I’m gonna read just two more. And then we’re gonna yammer together. As we see. So I mentioned that poets– Did I mention poets were lazy?

I’m pretty sure I did. One of the great tricks lazy poets use when they don’t really wanna write an explanation to set up a poem, is they just steal something and they put it right here and call it an epigraph. And so in this case, I had to work a little harder than I usually have to work because I couldn’t remember where I’d read the thing that I wanted to use. So I actually had to try to remember what it was, come up with an approximate paraphrase, and then I had to come up with someone to say it. So it goes like this. It’s actually, it turns out to be, I think Macarios. But I didn’t remember that until it was too late. The poem is called “As We See,” and the part that I’d remembered reading in my car but didn’t remember where I’d read it. “The transfiguration of our lord, that is the radiance in which he was bathed at the pinnacle of Mount Tabor. Did not manifest a change in him, but a change in those who saw him.” And that’s attributed to Isaac the Least, which is a joke. But the poem is not a joke. I like to open with a joke and then tear your heart out. I’m sorry. [audience laughs] Suppose the holy one whose face we seek is not so much invisible as we are ill equipped to apprehend his grave proximity. Suppose our affixed attention serves mostly to make evident the gap dividing what is seen and what is here. The book there on the stand proves arduous to open, entombed as it is in layers of accretion, layers of gloss applied to varied purposes, hardly any of them laudable, so many guarded ploys to keep the terms quite still. Predictable. Which is why I’m drawn to, why I love the way the rabbi’s teach. I love the way they read, opening the book with reverence for what they found before, joy for what lies waiting. I love the word’s ability to rise again from chronic, homiletic, varial. Say the one is not so hidden as we are kept by our own conjuncture blinking, puzzled, leaning in without result. Let’s say the meek, the poor, the merciful, all, suspect his hand despite the evidence. As for those rarest folk, the pure in heart, intent on what they touch, they see him now.

I’ll finish with this. I was sitting with my friend, Travis Temarias, who’s a presbyterian pastor. We were at our favorite coffee place, which had to change its name after this day. Osama’s. Osama’s coffee bar in Columbia, Missouri. Now it’s called Coffee Zone. But on September 11th, Travis found out we were doing our habitual coffee meeting and discussing the morning’s events. And we realized we couldn’t make anything of it, so we sought the act of coming to terms. He was preparing his sermon for Sunday, I was trying to wrestle with language, and it came to me, this from Exodus. “In the pillar of fire, in the pillar of cloud, did not depart from before the people. According to the promise, we had known we would be led and that the ancient god would deign to make his hidden presence shown by a column of fire and pillar of cloud. We had come to suspect what fierce demand, our translation to another land might bode, but had not guessed he would allow our own brief flesh to bear the flame, become the cloud.