About Suffering

March 4, 2019

Elisa Gabbert: I’m Elisa Gabbert, and this is PoetryNow. I had just finished writing a long essay about pain and happiness and unhappiness and insomnia, and I’d been going through a period of insomnia, so I was suffering a lot myself. When I got to the end of the essay, I told myself, well, what this essay was really about was suffering. This is an essay about suffering. So I turned it in, and then I had some loose ends floating around in my mind, little bits of language and ideas about suffering that hadn’t really made it into the essay, and I wanted to write a poem about suffering that could contain those ideas and assertions, and almost like, pseudo beliefs about suffering that didn’t fit into the essay.


About Suffering

Part of suffering is the useless urge to announce that you’re suffering.

There is no other way to say it: I’m suffering. Just to say “I suffer” helps.

I read somewhere, “we become lyrical when we suffer.”

Happiness is suffering for the right reasons.

First-order suffering is second-order happiness.

You have to suffer for beauty? Because you have to suffer.

We pride ourselves on a high quality of suffering.

Turgenev was born in 1818 in the Province of Orel, and suffered during his childhood from a tyrannical mother.

In the past their suffering was less absurd.

The problem is, everything’s worse. Like, paper or plastic? We’re all still going to die suffering.

I value being alone with my thoughts, but it’s weird to say, “This thing that makes us suffer less, we have to stop doing it.”

Isn’t it kind of the point of culture to assuage our feeling needless and alone?

How does one suffer “gladly,” exactly?

At least the rich get to suffer in comfort.

It makes the life feel longer. Live to suffer another day.

One’s past suffering can be a great source of comfort. A torturous luxury. Velvet upholstery.

Suffering is happiness, after forty minutes of desolate shuffling. The point is, life is suffering.

About suffering, no one is ever wrong.

* * *

I didn’t grow up with any kind of religious guilt or oppression, so I’m, I think, more open to the idea that suffering is a kind of happiness, because it arose mostly from my own mind.


Happiness is suffering for the right reasons. // First-order suffering is second-order happiness. // You have to suffer for beauty? Because you have to suffer.

One of the phrases that I tweet over and over again is “life is pain,” which, it is, but it’s always said as a kind of like—it’s meant to be a friendly reminder, like: readjust your expectations, life is pain. (LAUGHS) So, I do think this poem was written out of acceptance, not suffering.

Katie Klocksin: That was Elisa Gabbert and her poem “About Suffering.” I’m Katie Klocksin and this is PoetryNow, a production of The Poetry Foundation. For more about this series, go to

Elisa Gabbert meditates on the nature of suffering and the language we use to describe it.

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