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Image for Suffering & the Good Life


Speaking of Suffering: Poetry & Pain

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

Poetry has a unique ability to depict human pain and suffering.

Professor of Medical Humanities UC-Berkeley-UCSF / Author
December 1, 2015

Thanks to digital technology we have unprecedented imaginative access to other people’s pain. But there is no evidence that our daily fare of images, stories, and statistical reports of suffering makes us more compassionate. Overexposure may inoculate us. We view photographs of others’ suffering from a “safe” distance. We read about them over morning coffee. We turn the page and go on with our privileged lives, nurturing American illusions of immunity that persist even in a post-9/11 world. The safety of aesthetic distance compounds a tendency to dissociate ourselves from others’ suffering. Susan Sontag’s final book, Regarding the Pain of Others, addresses ethical questions raised by efforts to represent pain, suffering, and wartime atrocities in art, text, or photography. “It seems normal,” Sontag writes, “for people to fend off thinking about the ordeals of others, even others with whom it would be easy to identify” (99).

A dimension of the problem that lies outside the parameters of Sontag’s reflections is the fact that people of faith are specifically called to identify with others’ sufferings: to hear the cries of the poor, to visit the sick, to give comfort in affliction. Yet even for those of us who claim to embrace those imperatives, simply not averting our gaze is a challenge. The task of entering into—“coming alongside”—others’ suffering demands sustained focus on the vulnerability that binds us to one another. Courageous compassion doesn’t come naturally. We need help if we are to be the kind of caregivers we are called to be.

Forming Empathy: The Uses of Poetry to Come Alongside

Photography may or may not be helpful. For discussion of its effects I refer you to Sontag. Here, I want to consider how poetry may offer an effective incitement to empathy more adequate in some ways than graphic visual representation. If we are to get beyond hand-wringing clichés when we are called upon to witness pain, or to bear it, we need words that equip us.

Equipment for Living

Kenneth Burke called literature “equipment for living.” This definition surely makes sense to anyone who has found a line or image from a poem surfacing in moments of desperation or delight—Lear’s cry on the heath, Horatio’s “Good night sweet prince,” Donne’s “Death, be not proud,” Dickinson’s “thing with feathers,” Hopkins’ “Glory be to God for dappled things….” Those who have ventured into the wide waters of world literature have encountered challenges to culture-bound notions of the normal that invite us to more complex understanding of motive, meaning, and suffering. Arundhati Roy, Chinua Achebe, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Rabindranath Tagore, anonymous tales from oral traditions reframe points of view Americans may too readily universalize. Certainly Scripture retains elements of strangeness that resist domestication. The one who loves us most intimately and completely we see through a glass darkly, and sometimes find utterly baffling.

Good writers and poets take us to these borderlands of mystery and strangeness. A new image, a surprising verb, a deft line break can jar us out of cliché into authentic questions and awakened empathy. When it speaks of pain, good poetry complicates what we oversimplify in our fear.

A Record of Pain: Poetry’s Catalog of Suffering

The history of poetry provides a record of pain. Over the past few decades, poets have done their work in a context of new scientific, psychological, and technological approaches to suffering. The clinical and legal language of “depression,” “neurosis,” end-of-life options,” “vegetative state,” “stages of grief” competes with older words like “sorrow” or “melancholy” or even “affliction.” Wendell Berry’s short story, “Fidelity,” about a dying man whose family seeks to free him from institutional care and let him die in the embrace of those who love him, illustrates what it might mean to preserve, despite institutional constraints, “the larger, looser order of merely human love” (113).

In the midst of the “cancer industry,” litigation and DSM revisions, contemporary poets have continued to call our attention to what is radically personal, surprising, and paradoxical about suffering. As Galway Kinnell put it in “The Choir”:

Even sad music

Requires an absolute happiness:

Eyes, nostrils, mouth strain together in quintal harmony

To sing Joy and Death well. (10)

That “absolute happiness” is possible only when we become aware of a larger story that transcends the immediacies of suffering—a point of view that is not “of this world.”

Witnessing the Horror, Arbitrariness, Tedium, and Banality of Evil

To learn what suffering has to teach requires that we protect the time and space we need to regard, reflect, and pray. Suffering calls us one by one to walk a dark valley. As Flannery O’Connor suggests, “… sickness is . . . a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow” (163). To speak from that place of exile is to forego the clichés and enter into what Marianne Paget called a “complex sorrow.” In her “Mastectomy Poems” Alicia Ostriker issues a practical corrective to those who dramatize her suffering in a way that would belie the daily experience of life-threatening illness:

Spare me your pity,

your terror, your condolence.

I’m not your wasting heroine,

your dying swan. Friend, tragedy

is a sort of surrender.

Tell me again I’m a model

of toughness. I eat that up.

I grade papers, I listen to wind. (93)

Ostriker’s spunky resistance to stereotypes calls to mind the comment of an Auschwitz survivor I know: To call the Holocaust a “tragedy,” she insisted, is to falsify it and to oversimplify the mystery of the evil that took place. Tragedy is an art form in which the hero “suffers into truth.” It is ritualized for our pleasure and instruction. It can offer deep truths. But its resolutions are not an accurate representation of the horror, the arbitrariness, the tedium, the “banality” of evil. Do not, she warned, try to make it easy to understand how atrocities could happen or what it meant to endure them. Both women challenge those of us who are called to witness others’ pain. Most of us will be, at some point.


“To stand with the dying is to enter into a “conspiracy”—a breathing together that can help the dying go gentle and the living “bear with” the other’s suffering and release.”

Witness requires a willing gaze and willingness to wait. It is hard to retrieve the requisite permission in our culture of doing simply to be with the sick and dying. Peter Pereira, surgeon and poet, testifies to this difficulty in his poem, “What Matters,” about a friend’s death. The discipline of doing nothing when there is nothing to be done, is what many find hardest during a vigil:

. . . uncomfortable in our comforting

because there is nothing more

for us to do now but attend.

We close our eyes, listen to you breathe.

Pause when you pause, linger over each

Exhalation as if it were your last. (27)

Though these lines testify to discomfort and helplessness, they also give direction: To stand with the dying is to enter into a “conspiracy”—a breathing together that can help the dying go gentle and the living “bear with” the other’s suffering and release. The verbs, “attend,” “listen,” “linger” suggest deep intentionality, neither passive nor helpless, but strenuous in the way suggested by the psalmist when he insists, “Wait, I say, on the Lord” (Ps. 27:14 KJV).

Well-chosen verbs and images that awaken conscience and consciousness bring word and sacrament into close relationship. In an apt and accurate image, truth is served. Consider how Judith Sornberger describes the experience of loss after a hysterectomy:

. . .

It took losing her uterus

To bring her to the surface,

And she rose clear

As her mother-in-law’s crystal

When she dried it, but broken

In a way no one could see,

Like the chipped pieces she kept

At the back of the buffet. . . . (205)

The domestic details that speak of female lineage and work, the pieces kept but hidden, suggest the quiet acts of diplomacy, preservation, and personal pride by which women keep together what is fragmented in the entropy of ordinary life. Therein the poem calls important attention to the ache of absence surgical excision can leave.


“Where does it hurt?”—a standard medical question–is often hard to answer. But, as nurse and poet Courtney Davis learns from an abused woman, physical pain may be less acute than the humiliation and disorientation of loss:

One woman told me it wasn’t the blows

But the love lost,

Gone as if they peeled your skin,

Sucked all marrow from your bones and now

You walk everywhere hollow. (17)

The macabre image that evokes the ghoulishness of a vampire and the skinning of an animal makes the final word, “hollow,” resonant with the unnatural emptiness of spiritual evisceration. It directs shocking attention to the place where healing must begin—beneath the skin, the bruises, in the most hidden parts of the soul where the need, like a raking thirst, is for replenishment.

We can help to replenish. Living water is available still to those of us no better equipped than the woman at the well to carry it to where it is needed. Even to pain that is not curable we may bring healing, if we are willing to dwell in the presence of suffering, attentive to both the words and the silences that surround it, willing to mingle practical care with the ancient, arduous, open-hearted work of lament and praise.