Pain and Poetry

by Guest Blogger March 01, 2011

By Phil Henry

Some people are built to describe things prosaically, others poetically. For the most part, this is a function of our personalities. You know the drill: you’re an engineer, I’m an artist. But when it comes to giving expression to the deepest crevices of suffering and pain in our lives, poetry seems uniquely suited as a medium of expression.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Ruth Franklin takes up this issue when studying a Holocaust writer (“The Long View: a rediscovered master of holocaust writing” by Ruth Franklin, January 31, 2011). Franklin’s article begins by reviewing a dialogue between two authors, HG Adler and Theodor Adorno, and contrasts their fundamentally different viewpoints when it comes to chronicling the Holocaust.

Adorno, in correspondence exchanged with Adler, is famously recorded as saying, “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” That’s not a word one usually minces: barbaric. I take that to mean subhuman, or inhuman, even. Barbaric, for Adorno, consists in “trying to impose artistic coherence upon such a monstrosity.” Such an attempt was, and would be, for Adorno, an “inherent falsification.”

This point of view suggests that only a bare reportage is apropos after such a horrific display of human degradation. Seeing, as we do in the Holocaust, what depths of depravity human behavior is capable of achieving, we lose words, we lose whole expressions, and lost are even entire idioms from human vocabulary. In this case, the idiom Adorno strikes is that of poetry.

But is an attempt at poetry in the face of an unspeakable tragedy an “inherent falsification”? Haven’t people always attempted to create poetry in the face of otherwise open-mouthed horror? Isn’t poetry by definition that art form which gives a voice to things which would otherwise be beyond description?

While I pondered this troubling question, the same theme came up again in a recent Philadelphia area public radio interview. The topic was poetry; I can’t recall the author, or the interviewer, but I can’t forget the description given about tragic poetry: "They start out as screams of pain and anguish and then they become objects of pleasure and works of art. This is one of the paradoxes of poetry."

What is it about poetry that, when the art is endured through the pain of naming, of identifying our pain, becomes a work of art?

Where Adorno is wrong, and I believe he is wrong, is in his veneration of prose. Think about it: prose, as poetry, attempts to bring a logic of its own to events or experiences that otherwise lack coherence. Somehow, even a bare, factoid narrative of an otherwise awful experience gives it coherence and removes it from the realm of the insane and mind-boggling. Even a documentary-level review of suffering places it, even anchors it, within the confines of WORDS, on the eye-bolts and dock moorings of terra firma.

When an event submits to words of any kind, it submits to a larger-than-life reality. It becomes situated in the world. It is shown to be dependent upon, and loyal to the LOGIC of the world. At that point, the logos of the cosmos, becomes apparent in and through IT, where prior to that art (or act of articulation) such was simply invisible.

Ruminate, in undertaking to publish poetry, is a midwife of suffering.

Part of our mission is to seek to provide a forum or context (or medium) in which suffering can be given a voice. In this we are children of our heavenly Father:

Father of the fatherless and defender of the widows is the LORD in his Holy Habitation. (Ps. 68:5)

Unspeakable (in any other context) griefs can come to being in our pages, and in that simple act of publication, an otherwise meaningless world becomes that much more meaningFUL.

Our commitment is clear. We are passionate about this calling of ours. What remains belongs to those in our extended family who suffer: are you willing to put your pen to paper and give a voice, and therefore, risk giving meaning, to that which would otherwise be a terrorist of your soul?

In her New Yorker article, Franklin records an interview with our Holocaust poet and singer, HG Adler, with a journalist, Joachim Fisher. In that interview, Fisher asks Adler: “Isn’t the act of writing such a book...a form of self-laceration, a continual re-churning up of a horror most people would prefer to suppress?”

His response is stunning: “I would not be here before you today if I had not written that book. That book constituted my self-liberation.”

His poetry freed him.

As a Christian, I would add that ultimate liberation is achieved not merely as springing from self, though it is not less than that. Ultimate liberation is a freedom that is achieved by the Lord of Glory, who Himself promised that the truth would set us free.

My truth, expressed in prose or poetry, is a gift not only to ourselves and to my readers, it is an offering of worship to God, an act of faith in the face of unspeakable circumstances, that there is an order and a reason and a beauty and a poetry in the world despite what our eyes and hearts and lives may tell us.

We would even say that such poetry demands the kind of faith apart from which it is IMPOSSIBLE to please God (Heb. 11:3).

We know our calling is to give space for suffering voices to be heard. 

Phil Henry is married and has six children. He currently lives in South Jersey where he is starting a new church community, Mercy Hill Presbyterian Church. Phil served on the Ruminate staff as an associate reader from 2009-2011.




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9 Responses

Debbie Young
Debbie Young

February 17, 2017

Thanks Phil. I love the scriptures that you associated to that comment. I hadn’t thought about the wood that way, but yes, it has gone through quite a distressing process to become as beautiful as it is. I did however collect the wood while processing grief. A number of friends and family members died all around the same time and I spend days and days walking and collecting wood. I was indeed painfully “mute” during the process but was liberated by “speaking” later in the creation of the artwork. Thanks for helping me gain more insight into the process!

Phil Henry
Phil Henry

February 17, 2017

Great reply, Debbie. I love your phrase, “mute in the face of suffering.” In some ways, don’t you think that being mute in our pain is the very definition of suffering? Which made me think, “as a sheep before his shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” True as this is of our Lord, even he had things to say on the cross.

By the way, I love your website, “faith, art, and farming” and your artwork with driftwood reminds me of the point I’m making in my essay. Is your interest in driftwood related to what I’m saying above, that this wood is distressed, and emerges from its distress as more lovely?

Debbie Young
Debbie Young

February 17, 2017

I appreciate this point of view. Remaining mute in the face of suffering is not redemptive. It resolves nothing. Suffering needs to be sorted out and poetry can be employed to do just that. Thanks for the encouragement.

Debbie Young
Debbie Young

February 17, 2017

Phil, here’s a link to a post about pain. Thought the topic might be of interest to you.

http://faithartfarming.blogspot.com/2011/04/theology-of-farm-kill.html

Debbie Young
Debbie Young

February 17, 2017

It appears that sheep are silent before the shearer. My neighbor says that she thinks it’s more about submission than trust or fear. The sheep are locked up the night before to dry the fleece without food or water. They are brought out for shearing one at a time. They scuffle a bit at the start as they are being laid down on the ground for shearing but are indeed silent for the most part.

Anonymous
Anonymous

February 17, 2017

I don’t work with sheep, but I’m going to find out if they are silent while being sheared. I’ll ask my neighbor about it and post the reply.

An interesting tangent for me… If my goats trust me I can usually handle them easily and they don’t bleat as much. Does trust contribiute to the silence? Or does it work the other way around? Does fear cause the silence? I have goats that respond both ways depending on their personalities and what I’m doing with them. One is quiet out of trust, the other out of timidity and a level of fear.

Phil Henry
Phil Henry

February 17, 2017

Interesting how gathering stressed wood helped you process a deep stress in your life. Its smooth quality (which I love) leaves a tactile impression that is emotional, I’m thinking.

Speaking of art, faith, and farming, have you sheared sheep? Are they really silent?

Thanks for the interaction.

Sincerely

Phil.

Phil Henry
Phil Henry

February 17, 2017

Hi Katie, thanks for stopping by Ruminate’s blog site and sharing how you were impacted by the post “Pain and Prose.”

Reading your experience, I was reminded of when I started writing poetry: in high school when I first fell in love, and then first became heart-broken.

In that season of my life (long ago now) I wrote hundreds of lines of poetry—so much so that for quite a long time after, I couldn’t write at all because I hadn’t experienced that level of pain and emotional anguish.

Since then, though, the invisible gauge for pain that I have in my soul has has become more sensitive, and I’ve found a poetic voice for less painful experiences.

I’ve even found a poetic voice for things that bring me joy. That’s a new development in my own art of poetry.

I browsed some of your writing, and one of the lines from your poem, Life’s Full Tree, says: “Darkness has no hold on me.”

Grammatically, that is an indicative statement. It reads like a declaration of fact.

But, I was thinking: this declaration is only meaningful to the degree that it, in some measure, DOES have some hold on me.

The assertion “It Does Not” is as much prayer as reality. It is an argument with walls that are closing in—it is a battle cry, a call to faith and action. I like it.

Thanks again for stopping by and best blessings on your creative work.

Kathleen Krueger
Kathleen Krueger

February 17, 2017

This was a fascinating article for me to read, for it was the need to release inner pain that was the beginning of my writing of poetry and continues to be primary source. What I consider to be my best poetry, generally has its source in painful experiences or emotions.

It is also this poetry which generally reaches, and touches deeply, many who otherwise have not been readers of poetry.

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