Sunday, February 10, 2008

Love Poetry, Pain, Distance, and Romance

I came to poetry late, as a reader and certainly as a writer. It came to me quite suddenly. Not having written a stanza since 8th grade, I was wandering the warehouse floor of my book sorting job in spring, 2006 when, thinking about my new haven for romantic enamorment, I stumbled upon "I thought of you today/In this month almost May." Of course, it didn't come to me with line breaks, but even without counting off the syllables, I could tell it had parity and was lyrical. And it rhymed! That was particularly exciting for me.

The details of my quite marginal stabs at sonnetering aside, I did notice after I got a few under my belt an interesting paradox. In my practice as a philosopher, my undying enemy was undoubtedly the appearance/reality distinction, that wholesale metaphysical splicing of experience between what seems and what is. One variation on the Platonic theme is in our conceptualization of language. For Platonists, there is a distance between our words and the true essence of our words. This creates the sense that our language, our verbal meanderings through life, are driven around the attempt to capture something--essence, reality, what we really want to say.

I like to call this the picture of language as a pirate. Language is, however, not a pirate (see this post). So I say as a philosopher, yet in my practice as a poet, writing to a young maid, so mild, of pillows and petunias, in my effort to engineer verse and metaphor around the libidinal energies of Venus and Adonis, I seemed inexorably drawn to the exact pathos of distance I decry just about everywhere else. It was a curiosity at first, but it began to build. I mean, it is a pretty obvious trope to reach for--I love you so much that my words are no match for it. And it's perfect for the hack--don't worry, sweetness, tho my verse doth sucketh, no wit could capture my love for you. It's the perfect escape hatch.

I've come to see, however, a commonality in love poetry, i.e. the sonnet. It was with pleasant surprise that, in stumbling upon the history of English verse, I saw it employing the same tropes I was using. Alas, no real surprise as our subject material is universal, and reading the masters work their way through the ropes and tropes of love has helped deepen some of the dim apprehensions I've had of the scope of Western literature.

I've thought for some time, though held my tongue in saying, that at the very root of Western thinking is the notion of unrequited love. Two things to chew on in lieu of my sorely lacking background: 1) the Bible can easily be read as a story of unrequited love (God loves us, we spurn him, He hits us, we totter off, He eventually comes back around, tries to love us again, we spurn him again, He hits us, we cry, He says He's sorry, we apologize--this goes on for the length of the Tanakh, with less and less frequency, until finally God gives up, kicks a bad habit, and kisses us good-bye with the birth of Jesus) and 2) love quite probably lies at the heart of Plato's thinking, certainly in his relation to Socrates, and nobody who reads the Phaedrus will doubt that that dialogue has been less than consummately transcribed into our canonized way of thinking of the Greeks, at least through the eyes of self-styled philosophers.

Sonnet means "little song" and we anglophones, over-taught by Shakespeare, think that it naturally is about love. And so it was from its inception in Petrarch. Our intuition isn't off, but what was new to me, and in retrospect again self-satisfyingly surprising and yet not really surprising at all, was that Petrarch, who either originated the sonnet or popularized this Italian form, wrote not just about love, but about unrequited love. It seems that Petrarch's beautiful Laura, the eternal object of his lifelong sequence, the muse to which he rhythmed and hymned, was married. So, Petrarch's love, between her marriage and, well, him being a priest, was pretty much total fantasy.

What I've noticed is that in love poetry, particularly early love poetry, the feeling of love is created by an act of substitution. The pathos of love isn't created by saying, "I love you so much," it is created by similes: "My love is like...." Metaphor drives love poetry, like all poetry, and the peculiar path it takes is generally of substituting other emotions for the emotion of love. In particular: pain. Various kinds of pathos-generating distances are created and exploited by calling them "love." To make this a little more concrete, I'd like to consider Sir Phillip Sidney's sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella. The very first sonnet goes like this:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay,
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows,
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite--
"Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart and write."
The first line of the poem sets up both the sonnet and the whole sequence: "Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show". What is set is a dichotomy between loving and wishing (“fain”) and, more importantly, truth and verse. A distance is created between the truth of his love for "her" and his ability to express it—he wishes his poetry were able to show his love. The distance between truth and expression creates a pathos that Sidney is able to employ to generate the intensity of love. The pathos of distance is extraordinarily flexible and able to take on many guises in the constellation between love, truth, and language: truth/expression (can words adequately express my feelings?), truth/poetry (can poetry convey truth?), inner love/outward behavior (I do love her, but how can I show her?), etc. In all these cases, the pathos is able to stand in place of the Truth of Love. Poets like Sidney realized very early that love is not like an apple, to just be described, accurately or less accurately. Sidney, and in particular the poem’s persona, Astrophel, is able to generate in us the sense of how much he loves Stella by describing, not the love, but how difficult it is to describe the love and how much it pains him to fail in doing it. The pain (rhymes with “fain”) stands in for the love—“pleasure of my pain.” (ln. 2)

This first sonnet is quite funny. Opining on not knowing how to versify his love for her, Sidney enacts it by having nothing happen for much of it. The first quatrain doesn't even have a formal subject to throw a predicate on. The first one doesn't appear until the second quatrain, in line five: "I sought." Further, Sidney humorously struggles with other poets ("inventions" and "others' feet" referring to poems), as when he describes the "step-dame Study's blows," i.e. the teacher is beating him. So, so much pain.

This particular struggle, in fact, shows Sidney dealing with a subject that English poetry began struggling with full bore only in the Enlightenment--what Walter Jackson Bate called "the burden of the past" and Harold Bloom, in his stylish theory of poetry, the "anxiety of influence." The major narrative action in the poem is his studying of other poets, whose "feet still seemed but strangers in my way." With the onslaught of classical learning during the Renaissance, not only did intellectuals rejoice at great and wonderful ideas (as Thomas Moore did), but they also, at least those disposed to originality, began to feel the weight of tradition in a way that had previously been relatively rare. In the last line, we see Sidney taking a strategy that shows itself to be an ancestor to the Romantics, the turn inward. Which, in fact, creates another distance: your muse telling you to turn towards yourself--which means turning away from her. (Spenser will make fun of this in the Faerie Queen when the witch of Book 3, Canto 8, creates a fake Florimell to pacify her son. This "snowy" Florimell is in all other respects just like Florimell, but it is run by a male sprite. Which begs us to ask the question, "Why is a dude running the automaton woman?" Spenser is making fun of the consequence of the Petrarchean convention of dude-poets creating their own female objects of love. "Are our Muses really the women, or are we necessarily making that up, too?")

Another example, Sonnet 47:
What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
In my free side? or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
Or want I sense to feel my misery?
Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have,
Who for long faith, though daily help I crave,
May get no alms but scorn of beggary?
Virtue awake, beauty but beauty is;
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that, which it is gain to miss.
Let her go! Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
Unkind, I love you not. Oh me, that eye
Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.
The 47th sonnet continues the identification of pain with love that had begun in the first sonnet of the sequence. Sidney, again, creates this identification to make the intensity of his pain correlate to the intensity of his love. This poem, in fact, elaborately goes on for its entire length without mentioning love as its object until the final couplet (though its place in a love sequence and the sonnet form’s almost exclusive use in the unrequited love thematic at this point in history gives the reader from the beginning its sense), the form's "answer" to the three quatrains' "problem."

The first quatrain uses slavery as its image of pain. Sidney sets the stage by wondering if he has "betrayed" his freedom (a freedom that he is assumed to have had, in classic English form). Sidney receives a flogging from "those black beams," her eyes carving into him mark of ownership. Sidney explicitly evokes being "born a slave" before yoking it to "tyranny," which itself casts the slave as an unjustly subjugated servant in the face of our native liberty—a kind of political remark in the midst of further intensifying his pain.

The second quatrain forwards a different reason for his pain: "Or want I sense to feel my misery?" "Sense" plays twice, once on "good sense," a lack in reason which casts Sidney as stupid-in-love, but also on reason's opposite, a perceptual organ, making Sidney simply incapable of feeling his misery. In this quatrain, Sidney not only does not receive help ("alms") for his failings, but is scorned for asking, being cast as "beggary."

The third quatrain shows Sidney's turn inward, as outside help is not forthcoming. He demands that his virtue awaken and the five times repeated "I" solidifies his inward turn, conversing with himself over what to do. What he must do is leave, though as it happens he doesn't actually leave until after, perhaps, a kiss, that which, given his effort to unshackle himself from the tyranny of his love for her, would have been a "gain to miss."

But she appears again at the end of the third quatrain, showing the poem to be a silent stew in solitude, the pain of his misery appearing because of her absence—for when she shows, he cries out inwardly in defiance that he loves her not, but despairs in the finale that the mere sight of her causes his love to swell and make him tell, what otherwise in solitude is, a lie—the verbalized, "I love you."

The effects in this poem are all given over to creating that context of pain, indeed through the pathos of distance. The final couplet's answer is that distance from her causes the pain of love because it makes him aware of the deadening effect of her presence on his misery, which heightens the correlative intensity of love through the intense pain—I am so in love with you that I am helpless to control myself: a slave to your will in your presence and a beggar for relief from the pain of your absence. This paradoxical helplessness negates his entire claim to autonomy, to the liberty evoked in the first line.

This use of various distances to create pathos remind me of something Rorty once said about contemporary philosophy. Talking about the lack of respect analytics feel about Continentals, and Continentals for analytics, Rorty said that instead of thinking that what the other is doing is not philosophy, analytics should say, "'There is a lot about philosophy that I don't know.' This is also what should be said by Continental philosophers who are repelled by the technicality - the lack of romance, drama, and verve - when they pick up a book by Searle, Rawls, Davidson, Dennett, or Putnam."(Rorty and His Critics, 148) I understand this remark a lot better now. Romance is created by rhetorical distances. In the genre of literature of that name, narrative distance between the quest's beginning and end. In Platonism, between appearance and reality. In Continental philosophy, romance is typically created by what Nietzsche called "the pathos of historical distance." In life, by the distance between people.

That romance is created by distance explains a lot about love poetry and about the love we commonly find in life. The excitement we feel when love's breath is at the nape of our neck is like the energy of a magnet. Too far away, there's no pull, no energy. Get closer, however, and the pull begins, and the closer you get, the more powerful it becomes until you're snapped together--and you don't feel the energy anymore. The dynamism of love, whether of each other, or of God, is created by distances.


  1. Matt, (on the lighter side)
    I apologize ahead of time for this, but I'm a bit of a brute when it comes to these matters. I'm reminded of pure biological quality. (I realize you write with some seriousness and that you'd like to be taken seriously, but I can't help myself)

    There's something amusing to me about intellectualizing on the matter of "love peotry". Because to some extent, we're trying to be objective about the irrationality of mans desire to have sex, and lots of it (not withstanding it's purpose). Whether it's love peotry or rock ballads, at the core is sex, period. I've always found it to be a bit of a trap actually.

    I've written things to my wife and bought her flowers/cards on days other then valentines day, but I can't tell you my intentions were always pure. Perhaps I'm too much of a "pound your chest, scratch yourself and drink a beer" male.

    Some guys have good looks, others can write poetry, some are dark and mysterious. They're aim is the same. You can speak as eloquently as you'd like about the buisness of poetry, but if wasn't for the goodies you have down below you wouldn't bother.

    Am I out of line here?

  2. Well, yeah, of course it's about sex, but I'm not entirely sure if "Hey pretty lady, with any sure luck/You'll pull down my pants and have a quick fuck" would work on anybody.

    I think the problem is thinking that talk about poetry or love or anything is an attempt to be objective, or that a person's desire to have sex is irrational. What the hell is irrational about having sex? Wanting to have sex sounds perfectly inside the bounds of rational expectation.

    Thinking that at the core of poetry or rock "is sex, period" is a little limiting. I don't there's core to anything. Sometimes we focus on sex, sometimes on the expansion of language. Certainly most sonnet's are about getting somebody into bed, some use innuendo to imply some of the acts involved, but, ya' know, there's more going on, too.

    And sometimes it's nice to talk about some of the ways we try and get people into bed.

  3. I don't know Matt, it's worked for me a couple times.....

    Our behavior sorrounding sex is irrational... There is no more stupid and irrational a group of people then 15 to 25 year old boys. You know that Matt.

    But ok, perhaps it is rational because afterall it's natural and of course, we could make the biological quality argument. Perhaps it would be more accurate for me to say that sex (and our behavior sorrounding it) takes us out of our intellectual level of quality and relative to that, makes us irrational.

  4. Let me try this direction. Let me stress before hand that (as I've already said), I'm not a christian. However I find it is a source of wisdom no less.

    The biblical Paul was fond of saying that we should avoid living life in the flesh and instead live life in the spirit. If Paul were to have used Pirsig's language this would be akin to saying: we should avoid living life on the level of biological quality and instead seek a life lived on a more social intellectual level. (I've always believed the OT to be by and large a document on social quality)
    Biological quality is by and large selfish, it cares for nothing save itself and for this reason it's irrational. The society and the intellect should always trump, and for rational reasons. Sexual debauchery always posses a problem for society and the intellect.

    How many bar fights happen weekly because 2 men want to get they're pp's wet. Or perhaps it's that end of the night frustration over the fact that it's another evening alone with me and my crusty sock... Matt, this is irrational.

    On the other hand, perhaps poetry is an intellectual outlet for biological frustration??? Maybe you have something here I initialy missed??? Is poetry an intellectual game for biological satisfaction??? I shall have to think about this. Perhaps the brute in me spoke to soon.

  5. My problem is that I don't like the epithet "irrational," nor do I think sex is bad, which is a lovely dovetail of many religions and Platonism.

    Yeah, kids and people act stupid when they're horny and/or drunk. Is it irrational? Meh. I think rationality is a matter of being consistent, being able to give reasons for your actions. "Biological quality" has nothing to do with rationality--it is arational. If people want to let their dicks or poonannies run their life, they are free to, though we can certainly wonder at the wisdom in it. Irrational? Depends--if a married man can't put together a coherent self-image after cheating, then sure, he acted irrationally having sex with the bar whore, which caused him to lose his wife, and then his job. But still, maybe "rashly" is a better description. And "sad" for the relationship you have with your sock.

    Is poetry an intellectual outlet for biological quality, a game for physical satisfaction? Maybe. I'm not terribly big on theoretical reductionisms. They pose a presumptuous, arrogant pre-empting of intentional description. Some poets are trying to screw the objects of their poetry. Some are trying to write something beautiful. Some are trying to write something new. Some are trying to change society. Many are doing all of them at the same time. Sometimes we are self-deceptive about why we do stuff, sometimes not. Sometimes we misread the actions of others. Sometimes we're right.

    Is there something called "love" to be distinguished from "sex"? Yeah, I think so. "Romance" from "love" and "sex"? Sure. The thing I found interesting about the sonnets is that to describe how much they are in love, the poets often describe how much pain they are in.

  6. Let me make clear that I don't think sex is bad, or by itself irrational. I'm speaking more of the surrounding behavior in that it is not consistent with the use of reason..... On the other hand I'm being a bit of a "dirty" relativist. Nobody likes em', and I'm one of em'.
    In other words, what is using reason when your horny? Where do we couch the faculty of reason? Is there intellectual reason, relative to social reason, relative to biological reason? If we accept Pirsig's notion of multiple levels of perceived quality, again, should we do the same with reason? Surely biology is reasonable, but with respect to what? Do we have to be clear about what our perspectives are when saying something is rational?

    I've always thought of biological quality as something one blindly follows. It consumes you if you allow it, and requires little to no effort to fall into. On the other hand, intellectual quality is flag you have to consciously pick up and carry on your own. i.e. biology finds you, however you have find the intellect (the high country is it were).

    Is there something called "love" to be distinguished from "sex"? Absolutely! I have kids. But no God I'm afraid.

    "Romance" from "love" and "sex"? Eh, I'm not so sure on this one. This seems nothing more then a game of reciprocity that eventually leads to the top of the mountain. Again, you wouldn't waste time with romance if wasn't for your mojo. This is akin to the "ego climber", your mojo is the goal and the reason you climb the romance mountain. Why put the effort and time into saving money for something if you’re not going to buy.

    Is love painful? You know it. And so is an empty stomach, which is why I satisfy it with food. I wonder how many of the worlds great recipes were created on an empty stomach (is not a recipe a poetry of taste)? And there too, I wonder how many great works of love poetry were created after ejaculation? I'm not sure many men could write, not to mention be creative,,, while they're sleeping.

    Now where's that sock, I'm all worked up now....

  7. This is part of why the idea of levels and rationality and the whole bit make me laugh. It's all about fucking? It's the "all" that gets you. You ask, "Why put the effort and time into saving money for something if you’re not going to buy," and there are a lot of reasons if you haven't already decided that "you wouldn't waste time with romance if wasn't for your mojo."

    You're singing my song when you wonder how many poems have been written after climax--there's no distance anymore. The true Don Juan, not the one who is used as a figure to be reformed, is the one who is in love with falling in love, because it is the falling that exhibits all of the energy, the eros. Don Juan is a poet who cannot write but when three feet from his Muse, in the impossible gesture of continuous, eternal falling.

    The point isn't to land.

  8. Hey Matt,
    Wouldn't "I thought of you today/In this almost month of May" be better? If it's any indication of Quality, I got an erection with my version and not with yours.

  9. That's funny that you got an erection with your's Glenn, because your version is the one with the feminine ending.

    (For those keeping score, that is technically not true. Neither mine nor Glenn's has a feminine ending: they are both masculine, both end on a stressed syllable, though Glenn's does have the extra syllable--if it had been unstressed it would have been feminine. The difference between the two are three fold: 1) my two lines are both exact trimeters of 6 syllables, whereas Glenn's 2nd trimeter has 7, which makes 2) Glenn's 2nd line an anapest plus 2 iambs--de de dum, de dum, de dum--whereas mine is two anapests. Glenn's line then seems to rhythmically mimic the iambic first line. Or, you could read the line as catalectic, as trochaic tetrameter missing the final syllable--dum de, dum de, dum de, dum. All these stressed, masculine dums may have quivered Glenn's C-fiber. Personally, I like the iambic matched with my anapestic (rather than Glenn's mixed), but I suspect Glenn is looking at 3) his "almost" qualifies "month," rather than "May," which is even odder syntax than mine because what, after all, is an "almost month"--it's not quite a month? Then what is it?)

  10. Matt,
    You should be pleased to hear that my neocortex has informed the limbic system of my errors and the excitement I previously reported has subsided.

    No gloating or I may not share next time!


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