Literature To Get You Laid: A Crash Course in Love Poetry
What’s the point of poetry?
Why write it? In 2014, all hope of original creative expression is gone. As Harold Bloom has elegantly theorized, most of our influence stems from the anxiety of reading the better poets who came before us, and trying to rebel, artistically, against them. Poetry is the single kind of writing that’s guaranteed not to make you any money. And you’ll be really lucky if someone reads it without being forced.
Why read it? You can gain more IQ swag quicker by reading about poetry and then just passing off the critic’s opinions as your own. We’ve all done it, though some people make kind of an annoying habit out it. After the heady days of High Modernism, poetry became heavily intellectualized, and the aspect of reading for the pleasurable, mellifluous sound of the words faded in relevance. Poetry became, in many ways, a game of intellectual cat and mouse. Who wants to play that?
The most obvious and sensible answer to all three questions, surely, is love. Or maybe just getting laid. Let’s call them the same thing for now. “Obvious and sensible” doesn’t mean right, and the answer is probably quite wrong, but love is one of those sweet spots where art and life intersect, bleed into each other, and very occasionally undergo the nuclear fusion process, producing something even rarer than clean energy: insight into the meaning of existence.
As with any complex subject worth discussing, there’s no place, geographically or chronologically, that makes a definitive start. But as George Eliot said, men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning, so let’s begin at THE love poem, certainly one of the most quoted and influential, and probably the starting point of poetry in general for a lot of people. Ladies and Gentlemen, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
This is, of course, a Shakespearean/English sonnet, flawlessly executed, with sumptuous end-stops and perfect, natural rhymes. It’s tempting to simply bask in the formal magnificence of this poem and not try to say anything original about it, but it can teach us a few things about love. The poem is an extended metaphor, comparing a loved one (“thee”) in the first line to a summer’s day, and suggesting that the loved one comes out on top. The comparison’s flawed, of course: the loved one isn’t immortal, and their beauty will fade, but love causes us to make up mad stuff like this. We want to express our feelings in an original way, to fashion our desires into art, and to keep the wolf of mortality from the door. It’s a way of reconciling the human intellect with the human body.
If we look a little harder at Shakespeare’s sonnet, we might see something that’s conspicuous by its absence: subjectivity. All the qualities that the speaker ascribes to the loved one are general; they could be assigned to anyone, and don’t specify a particular person. To an audience used to psychological realism, this might seem shallow, but the cult of individuality only really took hold with Romanticism-- Shakespeare’s sonnet (and the other 153 of them) is an excellent example of pre-Romantic love, and a useful object lesson as we try to think about what love is.
Bear with me, as the terminology gets a bit confusing here. Most of our conceptions of love are post-Romantic-- that is, after Romanticism, the artistic and intellectual movement that flourished in the later part of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th. It’s a hard movement to sum up concisely, but Romanticism generally offered an increased focus on the emotions of the individual. It spanned across poetry, painting, philosophy; pretty much everything. I'd say it's best summed up in by Caspar David Friedrich's painting:
The word "romantic" today, with all its connotations of soppiness and schmultz, comes from this school of thought. But the Romantic poets did romance properly. Take, for instance, Keats's "Bright Star":
Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
Keats's wavering between two kinds of love-- the religious and the human, the sacred and the profane-- is thrillingly rendered, culminating in a gut-wrenching rhyme of two semantically polarized words, "breath" and "death". Love is, in this instance, all too human.
Romanticism didn’t invent the individual, of course-- it strengthened and refined the concept. The earliest poems about love in the Western tradition, and the ones which essentially invented the individual poetic voice, were written in Ancient Greece around the 7th century B.C. by Mimnermus, Alcaeus and, most famously, Sappho. They moved verse away from the grandiose, epic style of the Iliad and the Odyssey and towards the investigation of individual moods and emotions. The Iliad, for example, consists mainly of stuff like this:
Athena, eyes blazing,
breathed fury in Diomedes and he went whirling
into the slaughter now, hacking left and right
and hideous groans broke from dying Thracians
slashed by the sword-- the ground ran red with blood.
As a lion springs on flocks unguarded, shepherd gone,
pouncing on goats or sheep and claw-mad for the kill,
so Tydeus' son went tearing into that Thracian camp
until he'd butchered twelve.
While Sappho sounds more like this:
At my door thy presence
Lingers like a shadow;
Vain wouldst thou reproach me
With appealing eyes.
Dost thou think by constant
Proofs of lasting passion,
Slowly my obdurate
Will to wear away?
Even through the veil of translation, the difference in focus is clear; Sappho’s speaker has a considerably narrower focus, and gains the corresponding amount of depth. It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that the human impulse to love is pretty much the key factor in the development of poetry, and art in general.
Perhaps most importantly, love poetry gives us the chance to be ourselves-- even if that means being a tad bizarre. Carol Ann Duffy celebrates Valentine's Day as only she could: by her beloved giving an onion. That's right, an onion.
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
I am trying to be truthful.
Not a cute card or a kissogram.
I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.
The speaker follows up the bizarre Valentine's gift with a suitably bizarre explanation: the onion is chosen for its lingering, near-permanent smell, precisely the attribute that makes us conventionally separate the concepts of "love" and "onions". So for this Valentine's Day, be poetic with your gift. Get your partner an onion.
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