Three Poets On Suffering

Many years ago I was confronted by this quote attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky: “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

As I searched on the net to confirm the quote’s attributions I could only find a reference to it in Viktor Frankel’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. Regardless of the source, the quote is arresting. Suddenly there is a reversal. Any sense of victimization is gone. Instead there is a mysterious sense of being empowered by suffering.

I was reminded of this strange reversal through three poems that I came across in the past few weeks. They all in some way illustrate the reversal contained in the quote attributed to Dostoevsky.

John Newlove (1938-2003) was a Canadian poet celebrated for his craft. Like many of his generation he also seemed to like the bottle and it cast a long shadow over his life and the lives of others as captured by Patrick Lane in his prose poem For John Newlove. You told me once you learned a trick from Creeley and so dismissed your poems. But you always diminished your art. It was a kind of self-loathing….Regardless of how Newlove suffered or triggered it in others his poem on suffering published in 1965 shows exquisite understanding.

With Whom Should I Associate

With whom should I associate
but suffering men? For all men
who desire, suffer; and my desires
are too great for me to hold to
alone. I must see the others,
hear them in their plans, console
and ridicule, knowing
the greater their desires,
the more they understand of me.

The idea that our desires make us suffer; that our suffering equals the distance between what we have and we want intrigues me. Whether or not this is a suffering to be worthy of is a point for debate I think. But what I so like in this poem is Newlove’s sense of how our sufferings link us all together. R.S. Thomas asks in a poem of his: what is it to be human? His answer: it is to be lonely. I wonder if Newlove’s would be: it is to suffer.

The Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy (1910-2006) suffered his own trials in a Communist concentration camp after the Second World War. He fled the country in 1956 and lived in Canada for twenty years before returning to Hungary in the late 1980’s. Here is a fragment from his longer poem about his concentration camp experiences called Farewell to Recsk as translated by Paul Sohar.


The suffering. I’d had it coming to me for quite a while.
Had I not surrendered to it, I’d still be an unsated hedonist.
Some were guzzling its cold stream like spring water,
some turned into zombies while others couldn’t stop their wails.
Now I’m ashamed to say it was easier for me, all my pains
and troubles were numbed when I wove them into poetry.


And what is the best part of the lesson?
While erotic desires slowly
abandoned my plundered body
love remained its steady resident.

This poem floored me because it killed the two proverbial birds with one stone. Although he surrenders to his suffering the tone of the poem doesn’t suggest he was victimized by it or crushed by it. And one of the ways he carried that surrender was to write poems. This is striking proof of the healing power of poetry, what the poet Gregory Orr calls poetry as survival. I also so appreciate how Faludy credits love most of all for keeping him alive and heathy in spirit.

The third in my trio of poems on suffering comes from the giant of 20th Century poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke ( 1875-1926). This small poem, part of Rilke’s uncollected poems, was translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Lieberman.

Long you must suffer, not knowing what,
until suddenly, from a piece of fruit hatefully bitten,
the taste of the suffering enters you.
And then you already almost love what you savour. No one
will talk it out of you again.

Of all of the poems this one seems to come closest to the quote that I began this reflection with. Rilke startles me when he says the taste of suffering enters you./ And then you already almost love what you savor. He reminds me that we can chose how we suffer; how suffering doesn’t have to diminish us. Bold thoughts!

As I savour and ponder these poems I also realize how clearly they relate to a chapter on suffering in Old Age, a book by Helen Luke (1904 -1995) published in 1987. Luke was a visionary who devoted the second half of her life to writing, counseling and a community she formed, all based on the teachings and principles of Carl Jung. Like Kathleen Raine I was introduced to her through Laurens van der Post.

Luke defines suffering based on its latin roots: to carry and under. She describes these meanings in terms of the word undercarriage – a structure that bears the weight of a vehicle above it. In other words to suffer in its fullest sense she says is to carry the weight. She stresses the difference between depression/grief and suffering. She calls it a difference between a weight under which we fall and lie in self-pity, or weight we carry in full consciousness…

Luke is careful not to dismiss depression or grief but stresses that it needs to be transformed into conscious suffering and in that process all appropriate help can be found to help carry the weight. Every time a person exchanges neurotic depression for real suffering, he or she is sharing in some small degree in the carrying of the suffering of mankind, in bearing a tiny part of the darkness of the world. Such a one is released from his small personal concern into a sense of meaning.

In this discussion of suffering, one that just scratches the surface of a vast topic, I am reminded of the power of poets and poetry to make me pay attention and stay awake in a world with its painful complexities.

Faludy says his poetry numbed the pain of his suffering. I would say it gave it voice and released it; made it conscious and in so doing enabled him to carry it. Rilke reminds me to savor it, not avoid it. Newlove tells me to be compassionate; to remember that even when it appears someone is not suffering that each and everyone one of us suffers by the very nature of this unbearable world, as Gregory Orr calls it. Poetry is a huge part of the undercarriage that helps me carry my suffering; a huge part of what makes bearable an unbearable world.