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The Table Video

Scott Cairns& Diane Glancy

Poetry and Suffering - Scott Cairns and Diane Glancy - CCT Pastors Lunch

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English, University of Missouri
American Poet, Author, and Playwright / Professor Emerita, Macalester College
July 2, 2019

How does poetry approach the problem of suffering? Poets and scholars Diane Glancy and Scott Cairns take audience Q&A about the poetics of suffering and pain.


Moderator: What is the genre that both of you presented? Is it prose poetry, because there’s no rhyming? Is that prose poetry or is there another name for that kind of poetry?

Open form verse poetry. Open form verse.

Moderator: Most of mine is blank verse.

Blank verse? Okay thanks.

The rhymes are internal for the most part.

What do you call that?

The answer to that, narrative poetry.


Is what I write.

Mine is brilliant lyric poetry. They call it brilliant lyric poetry. [laughing]

Poetry has many facets. It certainly can rhyme and it can absolutely not rhyme. It can be a story, it can be meditations like he read. It’s just open to everything. The Bible is poetry. I’m not through yet. [laughing]

Male Attendee: Some writing is not poetry.

I’m just teasing.

That’s true.

That’s true.

I just want to, you know, my feelings are a little bit hurt ’cause that last poem did rhyme. [laughing] Just saying, it had rhyme.

Male Attendee: This question, so for both of you, and the thing that really struck me in your presentation was the exploration of the stuff that didn’t make sense. And I’m just wondering from you, how do you grapple with that, I mean personally? I mean obviously you write poetry about that but how does that come to you, how do you respond to it?

I just sit in my study and I think about what I don’t understand. What was Job’s wife life like inside her head, inside her spirit. And then, a lot of times, because I drive a lot and travel, when I’m passing over the land I think about these things also. And there’s something about the momentum of motion that sort of brings some thoughts together and I always have to travel alone. So I get inside myself where the hard things are. And I just thought of her anger, that’s the first thing that came to mind. How dare my children die, and so forth. So I just struggle and I probably have a hundred drafts to what I read I up there, earlier. I’ve always wanted to be funny. I love to hear Scott and I hate to follow him because he’s got everybody laughing and then I get up and it’s kind of like stepping off the edge of a stage up here. And I’m worried that I have a call to be grim because so much of what I write is just what always touches me, that I’m drawn to and whatever haunts you is what you go toward and write. And creative writing has always been my way to solve the problems and to look at these things. And I pray to be happy, you know, to say funny things and it never happens. I thin I just keep getting worse.

They’re laughing now. [laughing]

Yeah, but it’s nothing I’ve written. It’s when I get up and give a reading and I wait for laugher and it never comes. [laughing]

As for me, some years ago it occurred to me, actually probably between my first and second books, it occurred to me that if I only wrote about what I thought I knew, I wouldn’t have a second book. I think I maybe had enough material for the first book but thereafter I had to come up with a new way of understanding what poetry is and that’s when it started to make sense to me why else would someone bother with it. I mean, if basically you understand your creative writing is simply an expression of what you think. If you think of it as primarily just an expressive mode, of matter you previously acquired, then it’s kind of a waste of time. Certainly a waste of your time and I think by and large waste of everybody else’s time. But what if it occurred to you to trust language to lead you in to discovering something you hadn’t anticipated saying. So that’s really what my training began at and that’s how I talk to my students about it. Is, you know, we write to find out. We trust language, we pour over words, we look at the words within words, the suggestiveness of other languages and how they appear in English words and always impacting those terms to see what more than can connote, what more they can suggest. And it’s in that chasing that we actually get a glimpse of something we hadn’t anticipated uttering and that becomes the poem which then might sustain the interest of another person. Or even oneself. That’s when I know I’ve I made a poem if I can come back to it and read it and see something in it I haven’t even seen when I thought I finished it, you know, there’s another gesture, there’s another connotative, hiddeness in that glimpse. So that’s why I love poetry and I think that’s what, I think if you’d rather just express yourself then there are other ways to write, other modes to work in. But poetry is really that primary that motive. Trusting on which to lead us into apprehension.

And maybe Scott gets to his poetry right away but sometimes I have to write pages and put ’em away for a while and think that’s not too bad. And then I get it out again and realize how ordinary and awful it is. But sometimes when I read down through it, maybe on the second page or somewhere, I will see that first sentence and then bring it up and I don’t know how long, and I will know what I wanna say but also how long it took me to get to that point of what I wanted to say.

Moderator: Have another.

Female Attendee: It was interesting, your comments about having trouble with words and there was one word, Diane. There was, thank you, one word in your poem that really stood out and it wasn’t about suffering. It was your choice of the word hacienda. And I think you used it three times. And that took me on a trail of Indian suffering. Should’ve been Mexican but it came out Indian. But it took me on a trail and I don’t know if you intended that at all.

Yes, I did. Because the past is the past but it’s also with us in the present. And when I use terms like hacienda and other terms in this book on Job I’m working upon, this sort of removes the history and the patness of it and brings it in. And again, I’m trying to lighten it up a little bit, as I said earlier, which may not work. But anyway, I think taking risk and trusting the things that you do. I always had this editor in my head that says, you can’t do that, that sounds stupid. And that’s wheen I know I probably have something good. [laughing] So I just keep going.

Male Attendee: Hi, do you have a specific audience that you write for when you’re sitting for or do you write for yourself? Do you consider anyone specifically when you do? Any particular poem?

Scott will answer that question.

I do, I think of dead poets that I’ve loved. I’m writing for them. You all are interesting and everything, but I really [laughing] I really, so, I’ve had some done in life people. But live poets who have been my teachers like Richard Howard is an amazing mind and so I think, somehow reaches in there. Wallace Stevens, I never knew of course, but his poems are so compelling to me that I write thinking I want Wallace Stevens to like this. I want Richard Howard to like this. I want Elizabeth Bishop to like this. I want Emily Dickinson to get a kick out of this. I really, those are the people with whom I have a conversation with. See, I imagine that my own work is really entering into a conversation that they didn’t begin but they entered into in their time. And I think of literature, especially poetry as this centuries long conversation and we listen to find out what the conversations about and then we enter into it having been equipped by those poets to learn the language of that conversation and enter into it and bring ourselves to that. And so those are the people I really think of. I quite honestly think of. Would Richard Howard approve of this line? Or this line break? If the answer is no then I change it. And I know for a fact what he wouldn’t like ’cause back in the day he used to call me on the phone after I’d send him some poems and he’s say, Scott dear, do you have the manuscript in front of you? And I said no, but I’ll get it right away. And so I get it and he said, now, why did you dream that it would be effective to break the line here and here and here when in fact if you’d broken here and here and here it would be so much richer. I said, oh, I see it now. It’s obvious. [laughing] but no, so he sort of trained me and I have his voice in my head telling me to make it better, to make it richer. Always to break the line to veil more rather than pairing it down to meaning less. Yeah.


I think also sometimes I write for an audience like you. I have no theological training but I’ve had years of sitting in church and listening to sermons and going to Bible studies and prayer groups.

But there are a lot of pastors in this room? I apologize about the

Aren’t we at bible college?

homiletic burial line. [laughing]

Moderator: We’ve got another question here.

Female Attendee: More of a comment. Diane, thank you for being yourself and for, there was a connection there in suffering that was deep and unsearchable. But rich and textured. Thank you for that. There’s lightness and that’s great but when there’s times of suffering it gives me, the listener, something to hold onto. So thank you. Continue to be yourself.

Thank you. Very nice.

Male Attendee: Scott, you started to speak into this but I was wondering if you could both talk a bit about why poetry, instead of prose, and what are the possibilities and limitations of poetry? And why do you chose that over different written forms?

Like verse instead of prose? ‘Cause sometimes I make poems in prose. And I think I wrote that the, did I read a prose poem? Maybe I didn’t.

Male Attendee: I’ve often heard said, that poetry, it’s so inefficient. Why don’t you just say what you mean? [laughing]

Oh, that.

Male Attendee: So here you are.

Yeah, because.

Male Attendee: Talking to us or sharing with us.

If I only said what I mean, we’d all be bored. Because what I mean. Knowledge has it’s purposes. This is odd. Knowledge may have it’s purposes but guessing is always more fun than knowing. [chuckles] so I take Auden’s advise and I, I don’t perceive poetry whether it’s in prose or verse to be primarily an expressive mode. But it’s primarily an exploratory mode. You actually explore the language. And when Diane’s talking about working and reworking. All that labor goes into making it yield something more than she meant to say. And that’s why I love poetry and love working in that. Regardless of verse of prose. And then when I do write, an expository prose, then there are certain obligations to make sense or make a [mumbles]. But even there I’m even tempted and do in fact, load the terms. So that they’re suggestive terms and ambiguous terms so that the reader can participate in making meaning with it. Meaning that he or she might need that I didn’t know to give. Right?

And also, in our being we’re made up of conscious and an unconscious mind. And I see fiction more as the conscious mind. The rational mind. And then these wonderful dreams that we have at night that are broken and fragmented that need theory and underpinnings to explain it all. That to me is poetry. When you break it apart. When you take language and break it apart and separate words and sometimes letters of words and meanings of words and have then interplay and their relationship and their likeness ness and their differences. It’s just a fuller experience of humanity when you get into the more eclectic and abstract poetry. You’re just playing in a way, with meaning.

Moderator: This will be our last question.

Better be a good one.

Male Attendee: Oh, boy. Thanks. Scott, thank you for reading the Mourner’s Prayer. That poem I heard many years as an undergrad and it always led me to Superman. I can never understand how Superman tries harder when he’s trying to do some feat of strength. Isn’t he already really strong? [laughing] I’ve never understood that so your poem always reminds me of that. I’m thinking about the homiletic burial line and this is a pastor’s luncheon. I don’t know, do you. Is it hard to, as a poet, is it hard to listen to a sermon? [laughing] And how do you do that? How do you get through that? And what do you wish you could say? You’ve got some pastors here. What do you wish you could say in a homiletics class if you had that opportunity? Just curious.

I’ll get the answer to that question in a second. But I’ll answer the first part first. Yes, it’s hard. And that’s, people wonder why I go to monoliths all the time for church when I could just go anywhere for church. And the secret, I’ll let you in on a secret. When the monks have the divine liturgy they don’t have a sermon. It’s just the liturgy of worship. Uninterrupted by what we have to say about it. And that’s always been more profound to me. Those words that have been with us in our worship for centuries. They’re not dead. They’re very soul-opening. So I love that. But back to your real question. What can we do about it in terms of? And I guess I would I would encourage pastors to recognize how ambiguity is an opening to the parishioner to see something that you didn’t narrowly prescribe. So precision has it’s purposes but ambiguity is always more fun. Well anyway, that was an, you got it. So I just think choosing the more suggestive word over the more precise word, the more definitive utterance, choosing the more open utterance over the more definitive utterance. That in itself gives the one in the pew who has his or her own matter to deal with, that gives that person an opening to hear what needs to be heard that day from your opening the Word. And to reduce the glorious scriptures to a paraphrase, a simple paraphrase is always a diminishment. And I guess that’s not direction I would go. I would want to open it and make it more suggestive. So that the person who really needs an, Abba, give me a word, you give her the word.

Male Attendee: Diane?

I think he said it very well. I don’t know what else I would add. I mean, I’ve gone to church all of my life. There has to be something there holding me. And much of it is the pastors sermons. And I’ve heard many sermons. I’m very old. So I keep going back for more.

I just want to admit that I said this in a Q and A at a monastery in Pennsylvania once where Father Tom Hopko, I don’t know if you know him, Father Thomas Hopko, who was once the dean of, he was Alexander Scherman’s son-in-law. Are these names ringing any bells anywhere? Okay, never mind then. It was gonna be a funny story. [laughing] Oh, sorry.

Moderator: You can finish the funny story.

Oh, well, anyway, I just suffered through a homily at the monastery during liturgy. And it wasn’t from Father Thomas, but then we were all there talking to these people who had gathered to hear us talk and they asked me why I loved going to monoliths. And I said, well, mostly because there’s no homily. And Father Thomas scolded me right there in front of everybody and I apologized, but. So not everyone shares my reasons.