When in Distress, Try Sonnets

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When in distress with cancer and its treatments, I think of Shakespeare “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” and all alone lament my downcast state. I am not completely bereft, then, because his poem supports my complaint. Why are sonnets so bracing, I wonder as I launch into a neo-Shakespearean sort of pity party.

Absent presences in my dwindling support group, Leslie, Carrol, Ilka, Theresa and Trudy have all died. Will ongoing losses disband us? Just the other day, a friend phoned to say that her brother’s treatment for pancreatic cancer wasn’t working. They are not telling their oncologist about the fortune they are spending on medicines from Cuba that, they pray, may save him. “No,” she concedes, “they’re not F.D.A.-approved.”

I trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries since I must not upset her ears or those of a colleague whose son will undergo surgery for thyroid cancer. “The bad kind,” he says. The son, in his 40s, has two children. Granted a decade of post-diagnosis existence that this young man needs and deserves, I curse blind fate — surely, he should be spared! — as well as the requisites of my own survival.

A bald pate, abdominal and breast scars, the bump on my chest from an implanted port: all pale in comparison to the plastic bag on my belly in which stool collects. With an ileostomy, no more nuts, corn, salads, berries or cherries. Long walks and vigorous exercise had to be relinquished, given the major side effect of the daily targeted drug: fatigue. Wishing myself stronger, desiring this woman’s intact body, that other woman’s vigor, I despise myself for the envy that has me in its grip.

And for the solipsism of sickness since quite a few people confront more dire circumstances than I do. Because of racial inequities, I realized when I wrote a column called “Black Cancer Matters,” the survival rate of African-American cancer patients is considerably lower than it is for whites. A number of caregivers who read another of my essays, about “The Strategic Lies of Oncologists,” sent me horror stories of insurance snags and financial ruin.

But then reactions to those posts prompt me to reflect on the wide range of strangers communicating with me.

Did I know about the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund, set up after the ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott died from cancer in 2015? One emailer informed me that it has given more than $7 million in grants to support research dedicated to improve outcomes for African-Americans and other minorities. Had I ascertained how many oncologists resort to strategic lying in order to obtain payments for needy patients from noxious insurance bureaucrats? Dr. Rick Boulay, who summarized the results of his informal survey in the comments section, hopes the widespread phenomenon will be redressed with legislative reform.

None of my correspondents let disease blight that one talent which is death to hide. Each decided to serve the good of all by engaging in projects that might seem romantic since their authors would probably not see them to fruition. This was also the case for the five members of my support group who died. As Stuart Scott said, “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live.”

Happily, then, I think of you, dear readers, of your thoughtful responses and of all the cherished people in my life — the personally known and the personally unknown, the living and the dead — and, oh! yes, my heart soars like the lark arising from the sullen earth at break of day, just as Shakespeare’s does at the end of his Sonnet 29.

The volatility of sonnets instructs us, I believe, for this short form generally hinges on an internal turn, known as a twist or volta. First there is one absorbing emotion or conviction and yet oddly, unexpectedly, here comes another. The mutability of our moods is captured in the 14 lines of a poem that consoles because variability means not being stuck in one fixed lot.

Large in scope but small in size, the sonnet encapsulates infinitely malleable spirits within a finite frame, as we do. Readers of sonnets observe writers negotiating within rigid formal constraints and often within inflexible psychological or political circumstances, as many of us do.

The yielded delight derives not simply from a despondent start leading to a buoyant finish, for a resolute ending never cancels a distraught opening. And some sonneteers sink into a worsening condition. Yet even when a wretched situation deteriorates in the miniature world of the sonnet, it speaks of change. Thank you, Heraclitus: we don’t have to master “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” to realize that the stream of consciousness keeps on fluctuating. It was Heraclitus who said you could not “step twice into the same river.”

Occasionally about physical impairment but more frequently about mental and spiritual anguish, sonnets nevertheless deliver a hefty dose of ineffable aesthetic rapture. For as we overhear one lone voice spelling itself in words, its creator transmits a love of thrilling verbal pyrotechnics crafted out of and despite the sorrow or waste the poet addresses.

Especially when sonnets conclude with a couplet or sestet, this deft sort of closure puts us in the poets’ debt. For though there may be no solution they foresee, they brilliantly convey how it feels not to be free. In whatever way the stanzas of a sonnet are sliced and diced, till the very close (they say) our lives are spiced and spliced.

Of course, stepping into a summer brook also works wonders.


If you are in a funk this wintry season, here are links to 12 sonnets that have inspired countless readers. Which others would you recommend?

William Shakespeare: “Sonnet 29

John Milton: “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”

William Wordsworth: “The World Is Too Much With Us”