Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Don't Write Love Poems

I've written before about the difference between erotica and pornography, but I haven't written before about love poetry, except obliquely. The truth is, it's a topic I avoid: there's too much baggage around it, and most people already have their opinions set and their minds made up. They may not know much, but they know what they like—and they don't want their boat rocked. Wading into the fray is destined to get oneself called a cynic, or heartless curmudgeon, or labeled as incapable of "true love"—none of which are true.

The problem is: most love poems are rife with cliché, hoary with sentimentality, scented with tawdry cologne. Because Love is one of those complex, universal Big Topics, we have on record millennia of love poems from every living world culture, and many dead ones. Some of the oldest love poems are still the greatest; one thinks of Sappho, and of ancient Sanskrit poems from India. But because love is a universal human experience, virtually every fledgling poet tries their hand at a love poem—often in the first thralls of first love—and what we're left with is mountains of bad poems about a topic that deserves better. That's my essential point here: The topic deserves better than it usually gets.

The problem isn't the topic of love, which is a universal topic, but the cheap sentimentality around it. It's a Big Topic, so most poets collapse before it, daunted before they've begun. They give up and fall back on the familiar phrases around love because scaling those heights via a new path requires immense effort. We get a lot of clichés in love poetry because poets can't do any better than that—and because they think that's enough.

So most love poems use a cipher or sign in place of genuine feeling. Most love poems use clichés as markers intended to evoke shared experiences, because the poem can't find anything uniquely personal or original enough to say—actually, I should say that most folks who write love poems are not poets in any sense, and use clichés mostly because they think they still carry meaning. But clichés are by definition phrases, images, and tropes that have become thin and weak, like dipping the teabag for a fifth brew, precisely because of their overuse. "Love is like a red, red rose" is only one of the most familiar love poetry clichés. Many non-poets who attempt love poems (who perhaps could be excused on the grounds of ignorance, from not having read much poetry before they attempt to write it) hark back to imitating what they know: so one sees a lot of imitation Shakespeare, Plutarch, Neruda, and others.

One simple means of freshening up your own love poetry is to study the love poetry of a culture utterly foreign to your own—not as something "exotic" but as a completely different, completely valid, very human response to the universal experience. Absorb how others have discussed love. Imitate their responses only insofar as they illuminate your own: imitate neither slavishly nor shallowly.

The problem is, the emotions evoked by clichés remain shallow: familiar, comfortable, nostalgic, sentimental in the worst way. The emotions evoked by clichés, those ciphers that stand in for genuine feeling, are safe. They do not disrupt, they do not threaten, they do not change the world. They do not ask either the poet or the reader to ruffle any feathers. They might ripple the surface of the pond, but only with the smallest and most ephemeral of waves; most of which never bathe the shore.

Real love poetry ought to disturb, it ought to leave the reader wrung out and panting, needing to comb their hair, needing a moment to catch their breath. Real love poetry ought to be unforgettable, even shocking. Real love isn't safe, either: real love disturbs the universe. It's anentropic, making the stars burn brighter and longer. Real love brings a searing light into the world that burns everything it touches, leaving in its wake a new tactile sensitivity to fire. Once burned, twice sensitive. Real love poetry must reflect that light.

Some of the best love poetry we have isn't "love poems," but sacred literature in which union with the Divine is described via a sustained metaphor of union with the Beloved—as if those could be separated—sometimes loftily and sometimes explicitly, sometimes both. The Song of Solomon is both sexy love dialogue and narrative of consummated Union. The monk Ryokan's Zen-flavored love poems are both specific to the nun he loved, and encompass the world. Mirabai dedicated her erotic and incandescent poetry to the Dark Lord, Krishna, who was both her god and her fickle lover who she complained to as much as praised. Further examples abound.

What the mystical poetry of love embodies that the average love-poem lacks is depth, layers of meaning, and resonance: one can feel both literal and metaphoric layers moving together in the poem. Resonance in poetry is that sense that there are echoes of meaning you can only barely hear, present yet elusive; resonance carries a poem into a larger reverberant space, something more than two-dimensional. Mystical poetry is almost always multi-layered in that one can discover multiple meanings, multiple interpretations, on each reading. There is the literal, surface layer of action in the poem; but there are usually several layers of metaphoric, symbolic meaning also hovering in the heat-haze.

One reason mystical poetry has fallen out of fashion in our too-late-capitalist, logical-positivist, materialist culture is that we've been taught to deny any meanings but the most obvious, surface meanings to any work of art. And many artists have been complicit in that, choosing sign over symbol, quick gesture over resonant archetype, either buying into or reinforcing the cultural bias. It's a chicken-and-egg situation, in some ways, whether artists reflect or enable cultural worldviews. In the case of love poetry, the bias against depth in meaning shows up in the small scale, small ambition, small scope of much contemporary poetry, in general. Most love poems by contemporary literary (professional, "fine art literature") poets are small things: miniatures, set-pieces, personal reflections (in the wake of the dominating influence of the post-confessional lyric). They stumble, they rarely catch light and burn.

Perhaps it's too radical a thought, in these times of small ambition, but I do think that even the lesser mystic poets tend to be better love poets, on average, than the vast majority of avowed literary poets. And when you get a mystic who has read and absorbed a great deal of learning before abandoning it to the fires of their passion, you get something amazing. Jelalladin Rumi was one of the greatest of these, a learned scholarly man who drowned his books when he met the Beloved. Another great poet was Rainer Maria Rilke, the modern poet of deep inwardness, whose journey through the dark heart of the self led back out again to an embrace of the wider world. Look at The Sonnets to Orpheus, read the Mathnawi. The truth is, there may only be one genuine kind of Love, and that is of the Divine Beloved, the mirror is which all else is reflected.

Set Walt Whitman's best poems in the Calamus section of Leaves of Grass side-by-side with most contemporary love poetry, whether it be from a professional poet or found in a greeting card, and see how they pale in comparison to Whitman's wider embrace:

When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow’d;
And else, when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d, still I was not happy;
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,
When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning light,
When I wander’d alone over the beach, and undressing, bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my dear friend, my lover, was on his way coming, O then I was happy;
O then each breath tasted sweeter—and all that day my food nourish’d me more—and the beautiful day pass’d well,
And the next came with equal joy—and with the next, at evening, came my friend;
And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me, whispering, to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast—and that night I was happy.

Rumi is one of those voices (it's hard to say "writer," because his spontaneous poems were transcribed in the moment, as he sang them, by his followers) who never fails to set me on fire. Whenever I read Rumi, I feel I must write poems in response. I feel I receive a direct transmission of inspiration from Rumi. I get this from a few other poets, too, yet the responses I find myself making to Rumi seem light-filled in a way I can't explain; except, perhaps, by helplessly and inarticulately gesturing towards the original, the inspiration. I've been writing poems "after Rumi" for a decade now; someday they might be collected, but I have to admit up front that my critical judgment is in near-total abeyance with these poems. I'm quite sure that some Literary Establishment critic/poet will find fault with them, as poetry, if for no reason than that they break many of the unstated rules of current poetic fashion. But these poems were written in response to an actinic voice, not to please literary critics. To put my money where my mouth is, here's a single poem "after Rumi" that exemplifies the response:

Don’t write love poems,
write what you know: immolation:
a falcon’s fire diving from the sun,
the cricket burning in the night tree,

tulips kissing dawn mist, glowing,
the cold gleam of mushrooms.
And a Presence, everywhere,
hidden just behind the curtain

almost out of sight
seeping though the world’s thin cracks:
calling you towards a deeper well,
the voice of the wick
as your wings catch light.

So, attempting to practice what I preach, I've written almost no love poetry: no "love poems," I should say, in standard style, with standard sentiment. The very idea makes me cringe. It's not that I prefer originality for its own sake, it's that love poetry as a whole is so burdened by unoriginality that any attempt at freshness demands near-impossible effort. So I don't write many love poems; the few I'm pleased with have come at me sideways, surprising me when they happen because the topic of love is one I have almost never set out to consciously attempt. I haven't written poems for lovers as gifts, for numerous non-poetic reasons. Maybe I'm just not that romantic; I certainly have little truck with cheap sentiment or nostalgia. I've sometimes preferred to write poems that subvert the clichés, or that look at the familiar narratives of courtship from an oblique angle.

As models for how to find some freshness in this kind of approach, I refer you to poets such as Constantine Cavafy, Harold Norse, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jean Valentine. For passionate originality of expression in love poetry, I refer you to Octavio Paz, Emily Dickinson, Olga Broumas, James Broughton.

Here, then are two more poems of my own, both non-love poems (to coin a phrase) that exemplify, first, the sideways approach, and second, the oblique approach via mystical erocticism.

If you would court
a poet: make sure
you catch him by the wings:
the incandescent shoulders of praise.

If you would make love
to a poet, make sure
your words are well-oiled:
as sensual and exotic

as butter churned in starlight,
as clear as the sea’s whisper
under its wind-shocked cliffs:

as crisp and intimate
as your fresh-washed hair: tangling.

God is a curved line:
the breast of a girl or boy,
the turn of shoulder and hip;
even the lines our minds
decide are straight are not,
are curved or bent at the edges.
Whether girl or boy, the bend
shows through the skin,
a landscape of rounded river basalt,
a spiral maple seed’s plummet.
What we call straight up,
the spine or the sex,
is still bent: standing tall
is the curve of a willow,
the bent heart, the blossom
of bone in the loon’s cry;
a heart made of girl and boy
whether boy or girl or bent between.

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Blogger mand said...

Sorry not to be able to read the whole thing but i'm struggling this week... but i love your 'If you would court a poet' poem. 80)

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Swanee said...

Yes, of course most love poems are cliched; they're a rite of passage, like the first day of school or the first gray hair or other things that everyone goes through. There's nothing wrong with trite poems kept between lovers; the problem is when they get into the water supply masquerading as art.

There are also multiple ways to communicate love through poetry that isn't necessarily about love. I'm thinking of a specific relationship where I didn't need something that began, "Your breasts are finer than two bottles of Clancy's Hot Sauce;" instead, I remember a poem about a shared experience watching ducks, and one about something else meaningful to me, which were far better.

6:38 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

No worries, mand. And thanks.

Swanee, all good points. Especially the point about shared experiences, personal meanings,etc. Those are the specific details that can make the poem universal, like I was saying; that bring the reader into a real experience instead of a dead metaphor.

I love your line "get into the water supply masquerading as art." That's all too apt. And unfortunately pretty common.

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Swanee said...

Methinks Shakespeare's Sonnet #130 needs to be mentioned here as well...

6:32 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah, that's a fair example of reverse praise. It reverses all the clichés by turning them on their heads, mocking bad love poetry at the same time.

But Will's sonnets have got to be one of THE most imitated styles of love poetry, including No. 130. Not that I don't get your point, but it does feed back into the problem with imitation, and how even something as fresh as Will gets turned into cliché by later, clumsier hands.

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Somerset Wedding Gal said...

You know I can certainly see why you would want to avoid it! If anything, it's a pretty crowded genre...

11:29 AM  

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