Suffering Subgenres: The Self-Conferred Nobility of Victimhood

Between 1956 and 1964, Jack Bailey hosted a bizarre television game show called Queen for a Day. The premise of the show was that Bailey would interview a series of women contestants, who would describe in agonizing detail the misery that was their life. I remember as a child watching with odd fascination as one poor woman after another confessed her litany of personal woe to a rapt America while a studio audience judged which story was worse. The audience registered their approval by applause, and whichever woman registered highest on the wavering applause meter was crowned Queen for a Day, feted with roses, and awarded a cynical list of gifts by the program’s sponsors. Television critic Mark Evanier proclaimed the show to be “tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit.” Its popularity kept it on the air for eight years. The program was later revived, though it was cancelled when it was revealed that the so-called contestants were in fact paid actresses, and the winner had been predetermined. Apparently the point of the latter show was not to confer actual dignity to a deserving woman, but to present the appearance of having done so.

Queen for a Day is long dead, and America believes it has evolved past such cynical and tawdry displays. Not quite. America does so love its myth of personal redemption. The amazing artifice of the narrative of redemption lives on in the weave of our culture as surely now as during the 1950s. The difference is in the subtlety of the production values, and the pervasiveness of the message. I refer the reader to a recent New York Times piece by Mark Oppenheimer: “The Church of Oprah Winfrey and a Theology of Suffering” for an overview of one manifestation of the contemporary QfaD complex. And the complex persists in our literature as well—not merely in low-grade, amateur writing, but in the writing of highly respected, justifiably revered literary lights.

Lucille Clifton, a fine writer, demonstrates the internal logic of elevating loss and sorrow into defiant pride:

scar

we will learn

to live together.

i will call you

ribbon of hunger

and desire

empty pocket flap

edge of before and after.

 

and you

what will you call me?

 

woman i ride

who cannot throw me

and i will not fall off (77).

The self-effacing lower-case “i” draws attention to a kind of willful humility contradicted by an equally willful self assertion underlying the poem’s final stanza. The message here is one of resolute resistance to the agent of the speaker’s suffering, a message that at first feels reassuring. The outside observer would see a firm spine, a set jaw, and hands poised for action against the misery and misfortune of an indifferent universe. In other words, a hero of the modern era.

I do not wish to diminish the strength or importance of Clifton’s writing, for it is indeed skillful and evocative. Nor do I wish to impugn Clifton herself, for her personal history and the sincerity of her motives are not at issue. I do wish to challenge the social paradigm that responds to the unfairness of life by claiming its random predations, its indiscriminate infliction of trouble and pain sufficient predicates for special nobility.

Clifton is not alone. Alta Ifland succumbs to the trap when she says, “I am but a lame louse let loose” (83). Lynn Lifshin succumbs altogether: “It isn’t just / dancing with dolts / that’s sent me into / this rancid mood…” (55). To occupy this sub-genre of literature, one must passively endure an onslaught of unfairness, and by virtue of continued existence, proclaim one’s self a survivor. To confess one’s woe in this way is to invite witnesses, and from the sympathy of witnesses comes the sought after redemption. No other qualifications are necessary. Thus nobility confers upon the self merely by virtue of victimhood a kind of tribal membership.

Writing like this gazes from the personal toward the personal, and ultimately becomes narcissistic not because the writing lacks craft, but because the subject lacks proportion. Jehanne Dubrow perhaps reaches the apex of this symptomology in a volume of otherwise well written and admirable poems called Stateside by declaring herself Penelope to her husband’s Ulysses during a six month Navy deployment.

While I acknowledge the isomorphic similarities between Dubrow and Penelope, the comparison does not measure up. Instead, such disproportion merely announces a desire to be perceived as the stolid sufferer set bravely against a diminishing set of externalities. This kind of nobility, one of passive suffering, demands a source, and in the absence of a genuine source, the temptation to elevate even commonplace inconveniences to mythic proportions can be hard to resist.

Thankfully, not all poets suffer this condition. Wisława Szymborska, for example describes in her poem “A Memory” a luncheon date between friends in a café:

We were chatting

and suddenly stopped short.

A lovely girl stepped onto the terrace,

so lovely,

too lovely

for us to enjoy our trip.

 

Basia shot her husband a stricken look.

Keustyna took Zbyszek’s hand

reflexively.

I thought: I’ll call you,

tell you, don’t come just yet,

they’re predicting rain for days.

 

Only Agnieszka, a widow,

met the lovely girl with a smile (43)

Jan Beatty (Boneshaker, Red Sugar), to take another example, un-selfconsciously implicates her speakers in the complex of their miseries. She describes not women who passively endure, but who participate in the making of their conditions, regret their mistakes, or accept their self-destructive tendencies as part of their identities. Here are the opening lines to “Boneshaker:”

Sometimes you just have to cut & run.

I was in the virgin court, sweet flower

at the feet of the May Queen—and

beating up boys in the playground, I was

a pitiful 35 on the shrink’s GAF scale

…(48)

The tone of the poem avoids both self-pity and outward blame. The speaker simply documents conditions as they are, and, as the remainder of the poem demonstrates, copes with those conditions with a combination of self-assurance and inner strength. In this poem, nobility arises as the natural, unsolicited by-product of exceptional attitudes, behaviors, and choices, not a tin badge worn to show off one’s misfortune.

Works Cited

Beatty, Jan. Boneshaker. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. Print.

Clifton, Lucile. “scar.” Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. A Poulin Jr., Michael Waters.

8th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

Ifland, Alta. Voice of Ice. Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2007. Print.

Lifshin, Lyn. Ballroom. Greensboro: March Street Press, 2010. Print.

Szymborska, Wislawa. Monologue of a Dog. Trans. Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw

Baranczak. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2006. Print.

 

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4 Responses to Suffering Subgenres: The Self-Conferred Nobility of Victimhood

  1. Steve Owen says:

    I would like to see a part 2 that focuses entirely on Mary Karr.

  2. Pleliascani says:

    Uncommonly level-headed and interesting site!

  3. When a poet uses first-person, the “I” in the poem is called the “speaker” and should not be read as the voice of the poet herself. For instance, when a poet speaks in the voice of a character from mythology or literature or film, we call this a “persona.” The persona–which is a mask–allows the poet to move beyond personal experience toward imagination. But all poems are persona poems, because the act of constructing narrative immediately introduces a structure, a lens, a meaning that doesn’t exist in real life. Some poem-masks are simply more apparent than others.

    STATESIDE is not about “a six month Navy deployment,” and it is not autobiography. Poetry, as Wallace Stevens explains, is “the supreme fiction.” STATESIDE contains elements of the personal, but its aim is to place the experiences of contemporary military wives within a much larger tradition.

    In STATESIDE, I attempt to represent and give voice to the experience of many military wives throughout the history of military marriages. In doing my research for the book, I saw that the figure of the military wife has been largely unrepresented in literature, with Penelope as one of very few literary models for study. Perhaps, once other books have added to the canon of “milspouse” literature, there will no longer be a need to turn to mythology as a way of calling attention to the difficulties of contemporary military marriages. And, perhaps once there are more books by other milspouse writers, it will no longer be seen as narcissistic when these works of literature articulate the pain and loneliness of facing deployment followed by deployment followed by deployment, for years on end.

    • James Benton says:

      I want to thank Jehanne Dubrow for her comments. This is exactly the kind of intelligent dialogue we are looking for at Mixer. Let me respond first by agreeing with her on a few points. I understand about persona poems and the mask of the poetic “I,” and I see how the wording of my post could lead to the impression that I was conflating writer with speaker. In addition, I agree that the use of mythology and other literary allusion often serves a poem by connecting its content to a broader tradition. However, there is a two-fold risk with such use of allusion. First is the danger of obscurity, where the erudition of the poet exceeds that of the reader. Naturally, not everyone is similarly educated, and a reader confronting unfamiliar material benefits from exposure to the broader tradition. Even in this regard, though, there comes an indistinct tipping point where erudition simply becomes stretched too far and amounts only to showing off. “Stateside” does not suffer this fault. In fact, I found “Stateside” to be an engaging and well-crafted collection deserving of praise for its many pleasures. Still, I stand by my assessment that it suffers, in places, the second risk of erudite allusion, that of disproportion. Penelope was left at home for twenty years, subject to the predations of a host of unwanted suitors, abused in home and hearth, with nothing more than faith that her husband might yet return. Difficult as it is for “milspouses”–a neologism that seems to make my case for me–during deployments, the experience pales in comparison. I can speak to this with some authority, having been deployed myself a matter of weeks after becoming engaged, and nearly missing my own wedding due to a series of tour extensions. The allusion may be apt along some points of contact (the isomorphic similarities), but the differences are too great in my view to sustain the metaphor. This is because metaphor operates bi-directionally, vehicle and tenor acting on one another in a dynamic complex, each informing and modulating our understanding of the other. Both sides must be equal to the task, and when they are not, the result is imbalance and disproportion.

      Again, I thank Jehanne Dubrow for participating with us here at Mixer in what we hope to be a lively and diverse conversation about the literature we love.

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