Feature > Essay
Chard DeNiord

Chard DeNiord

Chard deNiord is the author of four books of poetry, The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), Night Mowing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), Sharp Golden Thorn (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003), Asleep in the Fire (University of Alabama Press, 1990) and a book of essays and interviews with seven senior American poets (Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, Donald Hall, Robert Bly, Jack Gilbert, Maxine Kumin) titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs (Marick Press, 2012). He is professor of English at Providence College and lives in Putney, Vermont with his wife Liz.

The Sublime Irrationality of Love<

Love's muses, both Erato and Agape, have shared the same irrational conceit throughout literary history, a conceit that emanates more from intense, chaotic emotion than Apollonian artifice. Perhaps, the author of the second biblical creation story, known simply as J, sounds the love lyric's archetype in the bible's first love story most succinctly, summing up millennia of prehistoric romance with a mantra that has resonated ever since: "Bones of my bones. Flesh of my flesh."

Although each age has interpreted love's muse differently, she has remained constant in her psychic intensity, her broken music, and her wild tropes. Lyric poets have evinced a desultory yet consistently bittersweet voice in their poems from the very beginning. Even Plato in his subordination of Eros in The Symposium to the higher love of ideas, simultaneously acknowledges the inexorable power of romantic love, especially as a subtext in Socrates' not so subtle jockeying for a seat next to his beloved Alcabides. The Latin poets Ovid, Catullus and Propertius reveled in their respective infatuations. The love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the oldest extant poetic narrative, The Epic of Gilgamesh, testifies first to the power of erotic love in Enkidu's submission to the courtesan whom Gilgamesh sends out to the hills of Uruk to seduce "the wild man," and then to the profound love Gilgamesh and Enkidu experience as spiritual brothers. While the Dark Ages suffered a drought of love poetry and a burgeoning of chivalrous epics, i.e. Beowulf and The Song of Roland, chastened as they were by the early church's Manichean influences on the brutalities and sexual wantonness of the ancient world, romantic love poetry re-emerged in 1095 with William of Aquitaine's innovative poems of courtly love, unleashing an irrepressible train of troubadours and romance writers who C.S. Lewis, in his classic The Allegory of Love, rightly claimed, "effected a change which has left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life untouched." As the first rock stars of the West who blazed the way for Dante and Petrarch, the troubadours and first courtly writers created a new lyrical mode within the genre of Western poetry, as well as new formerly taboo subject matter. Who could have known that the combination of the unattached knight and the influence of Arabic love poetry would have produced such a long lasting and profound sea change in the tradition of Western poetry?

Beginning as an inverted courtly model of feminine feudalism in which adultery was praised as the sine qua non for love and the lady of the court reigned in place of the Virgin Mary, love poetry reached an ironic religious apotheosis in Dante's Divine Comedy, proving that there is a fine line indeed between the earthly and heavenly vision of the beloved. But for all Dante's Thomistic efforts to restore love to its rightful religious place by transforming Beatrice from a desired lady to a light-bearing agent of God, love poets have failed in the intervening eight hundred years to reach the same Godly heights, preferring instead to devote themselves mostly to secular inspirations of what seems divine. In contrast to Dante's Divine Comedy, they have proceeded with erotic verve to dismiss objectivity and reason for the sake of subjective, often irrational langauge and passion, rendering Yeats' criterion for strong poetry, the "cold eye," more of a hindrance than a catalyst. The beloved has remained largely earthbound ever since, still celebrated mostly from the male perspective. So what of the feminine legacy of via negativa, one might inquire, that is, the female beloved's inevitable refusal of her admirer's invitations?

Since the eleventh century, love poets have found themselves in the nearly impossible position of concocting new conceits, lyrical themes and metaphors in each new generation. The love lyric's salt, however, resides not in its subject matter but in a specific lover's romantic experience. How then to create yet another unique poetic expression of love? To add another worthy stanza to the already vast list of love poems? This post avant song by The Magnetic Fields captures the present day lover�s poetic dilemma in disturbingly prosaic lines:

          The book of love is long and boring
          No one can lift the damn thing
          It's full of charts and facts and figures
          and instructions for dancing
          but I, I love it when you read to me
          and you, you can read me anything.

Without risking foolishness from the start, the love poet cannot deign to begin without swimming naked in the waters of his own madness, supplanting disinterestedness with obsession in the belief that his beloved is both particular and universal. He believes that the reader stands in willingly for the beloved, for love poetry in all its madness, makes "the divinest sense." "I am two fooles I know/ For loving," John Donne observed in his poem "The Triple Foole," "and for saying so/ In whining Poetry;/ But where's that wiseman, that would not be I,/ If she would not deny?"

Those who have been initiated by Eros's deranged calculus know the runic sense of its bizarre conceits and contagious metaphors. Unlike the model of the evanescent poet that T.S. Eliot depicts in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," the love poet eschews new critical criteria with incurable defiance and self-assertion. Her audience is not the many but the one. The last thing she wishes to do is disappear before her beloved. Her poetry is all personality, all lyrical urine, all I I I in pursuit of you you you. But inherent in enduring love poetry is a critical irony, a lack of certainty in the midst of romantic thrall. Its fragile half-life is ever vulnerable to whim and chance, creating a relativity in which a few charged erotic moments can explode into life long romances, as in the cases of Dante and Petrarch. It is precisely the love poet's unknowing that infuses his lyrics with a thrilling tension that combines both longing and doubt.

The love lyric suffers from both the curse and blessing of its subject matter and muse, who is Cupid. Ovid famously captures the god of erotic love's monopoly on love poetry with feigned resentment in the first stanza of his Amores:

          "Arms, warfare, violence-I was winding up to produce a
          Regular epic, with verse-form to match-
           Hexameters, naturally, but Cupid (they say) with a snicker
          Lopped off one foot from each alternate line.
          'Nasty young brat,' I told him, 'who made you Inspector of Meters?
          We poets come under the Muses, we're not your mob.
                    (translated by Peter Green).

But of course they are. Cupid is more than generous in his visitations, but the poet resigns herself immediately to the impossibility of expressing her "meanings" in any ultimate way. "Love has a language of its own," an ancient anonymous Persian wrote. "A voice that goes/ From heart to heart-whose mystic tone/ Love only knows." Conceits comprise an essential aspect of love's "mystic tone," capturing what Dickinson called "the internal difference, where the meanings are." These internal differences make no literal sense and are so transcendentally figurative that only the mind that has wed the heart to an experience of intense romantic love possesses the genius for grasping the metaphysical sense of such lines and stanzas as these, to cite only a very few:

           When I think of the state I'm in
           I feel a chill within those flames of mine
                                         Petrarch, from Canzone 122

           If they be two, they are two so
             As stiff twin compasses are two,
           Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
             To move but doth, if th' other do.
           Thy firmness makes my circle just
           And makes me end, where I began.

                                        John Donne, from "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"

           Your hair is a flock of goats,
                moving down the slopes of Gilead.
           Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
              that have come up from the washing,
           all of which bear twins
              and not one among them is bereaved.
           Your lips are like a scarlet thread,
              and your mouth is lovely.
           Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
              behind your veil.

           Your neck is like the tower of David
              built for an arsenal,
           whereon hang a thousand bucklers,
              all of them shields of warriors.
           Your two breasts are like two fawns,
              twins of a gazelle that feed among the lilies.
                                         Song of Songs 4, 1-4

           The stars be hid that led me to this pain;
           Drowned is reason that should me consort,
           And I remain despairing of the port.
                                         Thomas Wyatt from "My Galley"

But how to maintain such an ecstatic apprehension and appreciation for the beloved which Emily Dickinson claims "we must an anguish pay/ in keen and quivering ratio to the Ecstasy"? Martin Buber was profoundly correct about the vicissitudes of love when he observed that "every I-thou relationship is destined to become an I-it relationship." Eros dictates an inherent on/off or yes/no dialectic in the heart, ironically opposing the most basic precepts of faith and marriage. Anima and animus make for fiery bed partners but near impossible mates. We see this bittersweet dialectic played out again and again throughout mythology, literature, and history in such ill-fated couples as Innana and Dumuzi, Isis and Osiris, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Manjun and Layla, Orpheus and Eurydice, Catullus and Lesbia, Sappho and her beloved, Guinevere and Lancelot, Anthony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura, Emily Dickinson and Reverend Wadsworth, Dr. Zhivago and Lara, Anna Karenina and Vronsky, Gatsby and Daisy, to name only a few of the most infamous examples. The chthonic/astral tension that lies at the heart of every romance derives its charge as much from absence as from presence. If presence permits lovers consummation, absence fuels their tireless hearts. While every love story contains a memorable narrative of fulfillment and loss, enduring as much within oral tradition as on the page, it is the lyric that memorializes the frissons of erotic love in highly charged evocative lines, even fragments. But not without a price, as Sylvia Plath reminds us in "Lady Lazarus."

          There is a charge for

          For eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
          For a word or a touch/ Or a bit of blood

          Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.

Eros has always had Thanatos as its antinomy. No Thanatos, no charge in the wires that stretch from heart to heart. Eros consequently lives impossibly at the edge of social and physical boundaries. Dickinson described its antisocial, even criminal affliction as

          The Soul's retaken moments-
          When, Felon led along,
          With shackles on the plumed feet,
          And staples, in the Song...

Although the subjects of unrequited and lost love continue to haunt contemporary lyric poets, the intensity and chaos of romantic love has diminished over the last fifty years, compromised and even solved by such "modern conveniences" as birth control, abortion, anti-depressants, and the vast, accessible supermarket of video and internet erotica. Philip Larkin's poem "High Windows," written in the early sixties, marks a hallmark turn in the tradition of the love poem's implicit "press of the real" with this memorably jaundiced elegizing:

           When I see a couple of kids
           And guess he's fucking her and she's
           Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
           I know this is paradise

           Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
           Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
           Like an outdated combine harvester,
           And everyone young going down the long slide

           To happiness, endlessly.

Without the risk of death, social castigation and disease, the love lyric loses both its acetylene and poison. But Eros is less of a misfit than a witness, less of masochist than a fool.

Since mortality is the love poet�s salt, he goes to heroic lengths to celebrate and grieve the beloved. To turn her head toward what no anodyne can ultimately cure, albeit behind a hospital curtain. More than any other group of poets, poets writing in response to the AIDS epidemic have reminded us of love's own incurable infection with death, especially in our age of medical miracles. One need only read such lines as those below by D. A. Powell from his book Cocktail to appreciate the ongoing vital legacy of the love lyric's mortal witness.

           I clothe his sinew and drape from it and he loves me
           here is the garland that moves not upon our head. razor thorns

           and as that crown sits firmly so I sit firm. and if everything should perish:
           as bridegroom reckoned in his likeness I go. rock, river, permeable flesh
                                         (from [because I were ready before destruction.

                                           bearing the sign of his affliction])

These lines return us to our most human selves with memorable pathos. Their broken but lucid syntax updates the love lyric's diachronic connection to the radical ethic of agape. Suddenly, all the anodynes in the world pale in the light of this great if fatal love. Indeed, we live three times in poetry such as this: 1) identifying vicariously with the speaker's selfless love for his partner, 2) feeling a simultaneous love of our own that emboldens us to sit as firmly "as that crown," and 3) transcending death as "rock, river, permeable flesh." A lyric that is as life-affirming as this hides in the open as a difficult, frightening, visceral expression. Yet, it testifies invaluably for those who wish to turn their heads from "the shadows" to what history has proven repeatedly as an unguaranteed human commodity, namely the existence of a soul, or whatever one might care to call that transpersonal self within a person that "assumes what the [other, the beloved] shall assume."

In a Zeitgeist where romantic love is losing many of its life-preserving dangers by the day, primarily pregnancy and incurable STD's, today's sexual agora has diminished Eros into more of an archaic pastime than a psychic obsession, into more of a love for the priest than God, as Sharon Olds opines in her poem "Sex Without Love."

           How do they come to the
           come to the come to the God come to the
           still waters, and not love
           the one who came there with them, light
           rising slowly as steam off their joined
           skin? These are the true religious,
           the purists the pros, the ones who will not
           accept the false Messiah...

One wonders what new love poetry will emerge that defines Eros anew within the changing cultural context of love's mores, expressions and practices in the early 21st century. Or will Cupid simply continue to inspire poets with his same old private obsessions that have no regard for any Zeitgeist. The legacy of love poetry has favored the latter for centuries, constantly calling for new, bold, and highly personal originality.

In those rarest of love poems that cross over from Eros to agape, irrationality remains an integral part of love's character and muse, while at the same time transforming its language from irrational conceits to plain-speaking testimony. I think of the stunning arc between James Wright's "To a Blossoming Pear Tree" and Jericho Brown's "Romans 12, 1" in which both poets transcend sexual proclivity with the vision of what George Herbert called "quick-ey'd Love." In his 1974 draft of "To a Blossoming Pear Tree" titled "Hook," part of which became another poem, also titled "Hook," Wright encounters a destitute man at a bus stop in Minneapolis who propositions him. Wright responds to the stranger's advances by abjuring him to "get away from me, leave me alone." In the final draft of this poem, which became the title poem of Wright's penultimate book, To a Blossoming Pear Tree, published in 1977, Wright reconsiders his initial castigation of the stranger and concludes, "Young tree, unburdened/ By anything but your beautiful young blossoms/ And dew, the dark/ Blood in my body drags me/ Down with my brother." Wright's decision three years later to alter the conclusion of this poem from a reasonable, self-protective reflex to an inexplicable embrace of the forward stranger as his "brother" witnesses to the same sublimely irrational character of love one also sees in erotic poetry, but in dramatically different language. (A similarly plain illogic occurs at the conclusion of Wright's poem "Saint Judas" in which Judas, on his way to killing himself, holds a thief in his arms "for nothing.") Wright's repulsion of the stranger in the first draft of "To a Blossoing Pear Tree" is transormed by "quick-ey'd Love" in his revision as he weighs the natural beauty of the pear blossoms against the heaviness of his own "dark blood," which, in its human pathos and desire, "heavy as heaven" as Jericho Brown puts it in his poem "Romans 12, 1," far outweighs mere natural beauty. But Wright didn't grasp this transforative irony until he reconsidered it in his revision of "Hook," just as the speaker in Herbert's poem "Love III" doesn't initially grasp the salvific powers of agape until Love enlightens him in the final stanza of that poem with this question: "Know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?"

In Jericho Brown's "Romans 12, 1," from his new book The New Testament, published this year by Copper Canyon Press, Brown speaks for the "brother" in Wright's poem, conveying with remarkably plain lyrical language the precise ramifications of his bodily sacrifice, which in turn redounds on his "whole" being—a sacrifice in the name of love that Paul, in his letter to the Romans, had no idea would be interpreted two millennia later with an inherent radicalness that abrogates any notion of a social taboo against homosexuality. "Romans 12, 1" reads, "I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." Brown documents in candid detail just how he's "presented" his body as "a living sacrifice." In this witnessing to which his love has summoned him, Brown maintains his love at a high cost. In addition to the alienation he experiences as a gay black man, he also suffers from being HIV positive. Brown's "new testament" purposefully reinterprets the canonical New Testament with a vitally new expression within the context of his religious sensibility. His sacrifice, as we see from the social and familial rejection he has suffered, testifies to his truthfulness with himself and the very nature of his desire, over which he has no choice, but which he has chosen as a poet and individual to live with and accept, despite the social and physical price he has had to pay.

           Romans 12, 1

           I will begin with the body,
           In the year of our Lord,
           Porous and wet, love-wracked
           And willing: in my 23rd year,
           A certain obsession overtook
           My body, or should I say,
           I let a man touch me until I bled,
           Until my blood met his hunger
           And so was changed, was given
           A new name
           As is the practice among my people
           Who are several and whole, holy
           And acceptable. On the whole
           Hurt by me, they will not call me
           Brother. Hear me coming
           And they cross their legs. As men
           Are wont to hate women,
           As women are taught to hate
           Themselves, they hate a woman
           They smell in me, every muscle
           Of her body clenched
           In fits beneath men
           Heavy as heaven—my body,
           Dear dying sacrifice, desirous
           As I will be, black as I am.
                                         Jericho Brown, The New Testament

Contemporary American poets continue to depict twenty first century couples as irrationally lovesick partners who are willing to "be made fools of" (from Louise Gluck's "Mock Orange") by Eros, but with a difference, a difference that betrays a more egalitarian and antiphonal voice. The following examples—a very partial list of poems and books—both announce and presage essential new romantic territory. "Mediation at Lagunitis" and "The Privilege of Being" by Robert Hass, Glass, Irony and God and Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, The End of Beauty by Jorie Graham, Averno, Meadowlands, and The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck, "Broom," Rough Music" and Trapeze by Deborah Digges, The Gold Cell, Wellspring and The Unswept Room by Sharon Olds, Women of America by Charlie Smith, Tremble by C.D. Wright, "In That Year" by Robin Behn, "She Put On Her Lipstick in the Dark" by Stuart Dischell, "Sex in History" by Thomas Lux, The Other Lover by Bruce Smith, "Silver Lake" and "Song" by Brigt Pegeen Kelly, Chosen by the Lion by Linda Gregg, The Rest of Love by Carl Phillips, Master Letters by Lucie Brick Broido, "The City In Which I Loved You" by Li-Young Lee, Foiled Again by J Allyn Rosser, "Breasts" by Charles Simic, Sweet Machine by Mark Doty, Jimmy and Rita by Kim Addonizio, "Rapture," The Cellist," "Last Gods" and "Running On Silk" by Galway Kinnell , "Wanting," "Memoir," "The Talking Fish" and "Being Human" by Ruth Stone, Cocktail by D.A. Powell, The New Testament by Jericho Brown. I mention these as only a few examples of the expansive and ground-breaking types of love poem being written today. My omissions speak as loudly as my citations.

The love lyric catches us at our impossibilities, at our conspiring multitudes that transform and enlarge us through a transpersonal self that initiates reconciliations with those things we view in our everyday outlooks as separate and utterly different from us. In these reconciliations, we come to apprehend the irreducible nature of our beings. But how to get this down? The lyric attempt to capture a semblance of our fleeting apprehension of ourselves at those irrational yet emotional moments when we feel most deeply. How few of these expressions endure as memorable poems. But those that do resonate like the lyre's strings, vibrating across a void that spans the unknown and impossible.


David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee
These Wayward Things


Martha Ferguson

Martha Ferguson


Esther Morgan

Esther Morgan
Lines of Desire