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The Fourth Friend:
Poetry in a Time of Affliction
What, if anything, consoles us in a time of affliction? Today we don't need to look very far to see that our own generation is living through such a time, and this is true whether we are living in Europe or in Iraq, in Sudan or the Middle East, in Egypt or in the United States. As far as the West is concerned, we have only to think back to the horrific bombings that took place in the station at Madrid some time ago or to recall the shock and horror of 9 /11. But there have been other horrors, other scenes of humiliation and terror, which we have witnessed on our television screens, and most notable of all, of course, the effects of the tsunami. Although these events may have taken place thousands of miles away, they too have seared our imagination. My question, then, is this: In such a time of affliction, of what possible use to us is poetry? Can it be said to help or console us in any way?
After 9 /11 , there was, as it happens, one remarkable, instinctive response of the people in New York, a response manifest not only in and around Ground Zero, but also in many of the streets of the city. For, on the walls of the city, in the subway, on the sidewalks, there [End Page 19] began to appear lines from famous poems and even entire original poems, written up and pinned to photographs of some of the men and women who had died in the catastrophe. One account from the New York Times, written sometime after the collapse of the towers, included the following observation:
In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, people have been consoling themselves—and one another—in an almost unprecedented manner. Almost immediately after the event, improvised memorials often conceived around poems sprang up all over the city, in store windows, at bus stops, in Washington Square Park, Brooklyn Heights and elsewhere. And poems flew through cyberspace across the country in e-mails from friend to friend.1
The poet laureate of the United States at the time, Billy Collins, found that, after September 11 , he was inundated with poems from friends. And he remarked, "It's interesting that people don't turn to the novel or say, 'We should all go out to a movie,' or 'Ballet would help us.' It's always poetry. What we want to hear is a human voice speaking directly in our ear."2 A human voice, an intimate voice, the voice of a friend. With respect to the title of the present article, one phrase requires explanation. The question needs to be asked, why the fourth friend?
In the history of religious literature, and indeed in the history of literature itself, there is one figure—one man—who can be said to represent the afflicted human being. And that is, of course, Job in the Old Testament. Job is the innocent and good man punished by misfortune and sickness. In chapter two of the book of Job we read of how he suffers "with malignant tumors from the sole of his foot to the top of his head" (2 :7). Further, we read that "the news of all the disasters that had fallen on Job came to the ears of three of his friends," and they decided to go to him at once to "offer him sympathy and consolation" (2 :11). But Job finds no comfort whatever in [End Page 20] their long, rational, and somewhat boring speeches. He exclaims at one point: "What sorry comforters you are! Is there never an end of airy words? What a plague your need is to have the last word!" (16 :2 -3).
Job's three lugubrious friends, far from bringing him "sympathy and consolation," seem to have brought him, instead, more misery and distress. But then...