Suffering Comes Naturally To Poetry

A Poetry Squawk
By Sharon Mesmer
Author of Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place

Sharon Mesmer on poetry and suffering
Photo: Robert Fass

That’s a pretty dismal title, isn’t it? You might well wonder: Is she having a bad day? No, actually. This has been a good day. (Meaning, to be precise: “There have been bad days. This isn’t one of them.”) At the risk of telling you something you already know, it’s not that depressing once you understand that catharsis abides in the heart of suffering, and poetry gives access to catharsis: to release, redemption, renewal.

“Catharsis” is a favorite word of mine: it’s Greek — κάθαρσις / katharsis — and suggests purification/purgation. It was used by Aristotle in the Poetics. You know this, of course. I’m not merely pointing you toward to the difficult lives that poets — all artists — often lead, even though “suffering comes naturally to poetry” might lead you to think this is going to be about Lowell, Plath, Sexton, et al. No, don’t worry. I’m referring to suffering itself, only itself. And that suffering comes to poetry . . . naturally.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism deals with suffering. It’s like Buddha was saying, “Okay, let’s get this one thing straight right off, and then you can get on with your lives.” There are Four Noble Truths, and Buddha’s first teaching after he attained enlightenment was about them. That first teaching begins something like this:

“ . . . birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering . . .”

(I might add: “getting what one wants is sometimes also suffering.”)

I was brought up Catholic. If the mind’s literacy is images then “Catholic” is a kind of Black Hole. But my version was Vatican II, a dark-skinned, dark-bearded Jesus in my first grade religion book (“God Is Love”), my grandmother’s candles and novenas, and loving, watchful saints (like Anthony, who still finds my reading glasses — though why a desert hermit would become “finder of lost things” remains inscrutable). One thing we learned was the value of suffering. Not like: suffer more, you’re Catholic. But like: divinity communicated to us by suffering, so suffering, then, is a language, the language we all speak. Jesus may have been a poet, depending on your prism (and your translation). In Alone with the Alone, his great book about Sufi mystic ibn ‘Arabi, Henry Corbin says that the root of the name “Allah” is “sadness”:

The etymology it suggests for the divine name . . . projects a flash of light on the path we are attempting to travel . . . it derives the word ilah from the root wlh connoting to be sad, to be overwhelmed with sadness, to sigh toward, to flee fearfully toward.

That bad word “religion,” by the way, comes from the Latin word “religare” = to bind, and is related, by its root “lig,” to the late Middle English word that we still use now, “ligament.”

So, surprise: A divinity bound to us by sadness, suffering. This suggests something sacred across the whole business. Nothing is not sacred. Nothing we experience is a mistake. Even the worst of it. Suffering was always already redeemed.

It’s hard to embrace this in illness. That’s why I taught a class at the Poetry Project a few years ago called “Cathexis/Catharsis: Writing To/Through Illness and Suffering.” I taught the class because I’d “suffered” a nervous breakdown and came through it without use of antidepressants (my choice; no disrespect). I wanted to share what I’d found in the poems and writings that acted as talismans for me during those two years. Also because, as I wrote in the description, illness and suffering are usually imaged as sites of trauma, feared as obstacles, rejected by a success-obsessed culture. But what if suffering were a language like any other that could be learned, manipulated and deployed in a powerful new way? As poets we all know this. We know to do this. But sometimes we forget, and I wanted to remember/remind.

Poetry both protects us (as a talisman) and breaks us open (as a catharsis). And a poem isn’t just cathartic; it is katharsis. You don’t need much to achieve it. As Reginald Dwayne Betts writes in “At the End of Life, a Secret” (from Bastards of the Reagan Era, Four Way Books, 2015)

The soul: less than
4,000 dollars worth of crack—22 grams—
all that moves you through this world.

The idea is for you to be moved. It may be through a labyrinth, but all Theseus needed was a skein of thread. What do you need?

To end, here’s part of a poem by Olga Orozco, an Argentinian poet who died in 1999. It’s called “To Make a Talisman,” and was translated by Stephen Tapscott. I found it in Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry, edited by Stephen Tapscott, but I believe it’s also in her Engravings Torn from Insomnia: Selected Poems (BOA Editions 2002, translated by Mary Crow):

Your heart is all you need,
fashioned in the living image of your daemon or your god.
Only a heart, like a crucible of coals before an idol.
Nothing but a defenseless, affectionate heart.
Leave it out in the elements,
where the grasses like a crazed nurse will wail their dirges
and it cannot fall asleep,
where the wind and the rain whisper their whips in blue cold blasts
without turning it to marble or splitting it in two,
where darkness opens warrens to all the wild animals
and it cannot forget . . .
let it wail its delirium in the desert
till only the echo of a name grows inside it, like a raging hunger:
the ceaseless pounding of a spoon against an empty plate.

Sharon Mesmer is the author of Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place (Bloof Books, 2015), voted “Best of 2015” by Entropy. Previous poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008), The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose Press, 2008), Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna Books, 2007), and Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press, 1998). Four of her poems appear in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (second edition, 2013). Her fiction collections are Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette Littératures, Paris, in French translation, 2005), In Ordinary Time (Hanging Loose Press, 2005) and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose Press, 2000). Her essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in the New York Times, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, and the Brooklyn Rail, among other places. She teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs of New York University and The New School and lives in Brooklyn.