Human courtship rituals, across centuries and cultures, can be highly formalized, involving elaborate family negotiations and a series of prescribed tasks, exchanges, and behaviors, including Internet and speed-dating protocols, or they can be casual—an impromptu game of beer pong in the frat house, say, or a hook-up phone text message sent from a parking lot. From ancient times to the present, however, poetry—in addition to shared meals and spectacles, and the swapping of gifts, personal histories, phone calls, letters, photos, mix CD’s—has been part of the process of erotic wooing.
Three-thousand-year-old papyruses from ancient Egypt, for instance, such as those housed at the Chester Beatty Library, recount the courtship rituals of love-struck couples and their matchmakers (“He knows not my wish to embrace him, / or he would write to my mother”). In the Japanese court culture of the Heian period (794 – 1193 AD), poetry writing played a crucial role in all aspects of society, and especially in mating, with poems of specific syllable count going back and forth at key romantic junctures, on specific subjects (dewy blooms were popular) and on certain kinds of paper, scrutinized by all parties involved for calligraphic beauty and poetic skill, booty hanging in the balance. Any Renaissance person at court worth his or her salt knew the value of being able to write a decent love sonnet, and one thinks of Francesco Petrarch (1304 – 1374 AD), who wrote some 366 “scattered rhymes” to a married woman named Laura (who may or may not, finally, have been partly a projection) with whom he was passionately in love despite having little or no contact with her during her lifetime, and about whom he continued to write poems after her death. And who can forget Bill Clinton’s gift to Monica Lewinsky of a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—never mind that Bill also gave Hillary a copy of the same book during their courtship? In rituals of love and mating, we tend to deploy what we hope will work.
But what if we don’t achieve our aims? Some would argue that it is not the act of winning but of petitioning the unattainable that is the real source and abiding electrical current of Eros. In Eros, the Bittersweet, the poet, classicist, and philosopher Anne Carson writes, “The Greek word eros denotes ‘want,’ ‘lack,’ ‘desire for that which is missing.’ The lover wants what he does not have. It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting. This is more than wordplay.” Yet the triangulation Carson speaks of—“lover, the beloved, and which comes between them”—can be felt palpably in many of the most powerful love poems: Sappho’s fragment 31 (see Anne Carson’s translation, “He seems to me equal to gods that man / who opposite you / sits and listens close / to your sweet speaking . . . .” in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho), the anonymous lyric “Western Wind,” Keats’s anguished blank verse fragment “This living hand” (“now warm and capable / Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold / And in the icy silence of the tomb, / So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights / That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood / So in my veins red life might stream again, / And thou be conscience-calmed . . . .), Emily Dickinson’s heart-wrenching, ardent documents we know as her Master Letters (“ ‘Tell you of the want’ – you know what a leech is, don’t you – [remember that] Daisy’s arm is small – and you have felt the horizon hav’nt you – and did the sea – never come so close as to make you dance?” [Letter 233, ed. Johnson]), and so many more—Kevin Young’s tail-chasing love poems in Jelly Roll. John Donne. Andrew Marvell. Elizabeth Bishop. Dorianne Laux. Constantine Cavafy. Pablo Neruda. Rumi. Mirabai, the redactor of the Song of Songs . . .
Whatever the aim and outcome of love poetry—success, frustration, a condition of being in love with the idea of love—the endeavor speaks to the limits and reaches of language. “To try to write love,” writes Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse, “is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it.” And whether or not, when we are touched by love, we respond to it in poetry, the experience becomes crucial to our narratives of self. Carson puts it this way: “As Socrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you. That incursion is the biggest risk of your life. How you handle it is an index of the quality, wisdom and decorum of the things inside you. As you handle it you come into contact with what is inside you, in a sudden and startling way . . . . It is a glance down into time, at realities you once knew, as staggeringly beautiful as the glance of your beloved.”
A challenge and a tall order to consider for those of us scanning the aisles of Wal-Mart for heart-shaped boxes of candy, perusing who’s who on Faceparty, opting for a solitary night with a good novel, or daring to put our desire for our beloved, for desire itself, into words.
Lisa Russ Spaar, poetry editor for Arts & Academe, is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.Return to Top