Saturday, August 29, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 5: Indirect Lament in Wislawa Szymborska’s “Cat in an Empty Apartment”

In this blog I'd like to talk about what I would call “indirect lament,” or a kind of mourning for loss that is not obvious. As an example, I'm going to discuss a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. 

Szymborska was a Polish poet who lived from 1923 to 2012 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Her life spans the years of Stalinist communism in Poland and the rise of the Solidarity movement that resulted in her country breaking away from the Soviet bloc. She is known for plainspoken language that expresses a surprising complexity of emotion and thought, her wry humor, and the depth she can encapsulate in just a page and a half of free verse.

Wislawa Szymborska
In the context of this blog on indirect lament, I’d like to talk about her poem “Cat in an Empty Apartment.” You can read the poem here in the translation of Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

It’s very clear right from the first line that this is a poem about death. But the seriousness of this opening is lightened by the figure of the cat, which doesn’t understand its human roommate’s disappearance. There is something slightly different in the cat’s world, but it’s not a major upheaval yet to the cat.

Finally the cat does get angry at the owner—the cat has moved from the first stage of grief, denial, to the second stage, anger. But the cat never quite gets beyond denial—it is not capable of moving beyond that stage. Maybe that is part of what makes Szymborska’s poem so poignant. Even at the end, the cat is still hoping that its human companion will return, and that the cat will be able to show its anger and then forgive the owner's extended absence. But death has made that reconciliation impossible.


Szymborska’s version of lament is gentle, whimsical, even funny. But in some ways, this heightens the sense of loss. The grief doesn’t hit you like an avalanche. The grief in the poem sneaks up on you and leaves a chord in a minor key resonating at the end, like a great jazz ballad. I think it could be argued that indirect lament can be as effective as its more direct sister. It’s significant that Szymborska wrote “Cat in an Empty Apartment” not long after the death of her husband.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 4: Direct Lament—Akhmatova's "Requiem"

Now I’d like to talk about two very different approaches to lament. One is what I would call direct lament. In this sort of work, the author makes it very clear that she or he is mourning the defeat or loss of something. The writer describes the condition of that loss in clear terms and the reader is in no way unaware or confused about the emotion the author is expressing.

Anna Akhmatova as sketched by Amadeo Modigliani in Paris, 1911
A good example of direct lament is Anna Akhmatova’s classic poem “Requiem.” Akhmatova wrote this poem in several parts during the darkest stays of the Stalinist terror, when all of the Soviet Union was in horrible fear of the deportations to Siberian labor camps, executions, and internal exile that marked this period in Russian history when the Communist Party ruled with through a network of repressive institutions. Akhmatova and her family and friends suffered greatly during this persecution, when as many as 14 million people were sent to prison or forced labor camps. The Stalinist purges took the lives of two of her husbands and her son spent many years in forced labor camps.

Akhmatova’s poem “Requiem” about the Stalinist terror was written at great personal risk. The secret police had searched her house in surprise dawn visits and went through all her papers. She only was able to retain this long poem by having various friends memorize pieces of it, and then she reassembled the friends and the poem after Stalin’s death. One section was lost for years when she lost touch during World War II with one of the memorizers, and Akhmatova only was able to reconstruct that section years later when the two of them met accidentally on the street in Leningrad—there were no phone books allowed in the Soviet Union.

Here is the Prologue of “Requiem” in the English version by D.M. Thomas in his Akhmatova translation, Selected Poems:

In those years only the dead smiled,
Glad to be at rest:
And Leningrad city swayed like
A needless appendix to its prisons.
It was then that the railway-yards
Were asylums of the mad;
Short were the locomotives’
Farewell songs.
Stars of death stood
Above us, and innocent Russia
Writhed under bloodstained boots, and
Under the tyres of the Black Marias.

Black Marias were the vans that the secret police used to transport prisoners.

This is clearly a poem of direct lament. The reader knows that the writer is describing a terrible loss, and in deep mourning for that loss. One of the lines that haunts me is “Leningrad city swayed like/A needless appendix to its prisons.” The prisons have become the raison d’être, the reason for being of this great cultural capital, which Akhmatova describes as now mainly good for supplying inmates for the gulag.


“Requiem” is a masterpiece, and even more moving because Akhmatova somehow turned her country’s most terrible hour into something stately and, well—beautiful. That is an enormous victory, even while her family and her nation and justice suffered so many awful defeats. I recommend reading the whole poem to get a fuller sense of her enduring achievement.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2, Part 3

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 3: Lament as Protest—Sekou Sundiata's "Blink Your Eyes"

In this blog I’d like to talk about the side of lament that overlaps with protest. I’m going to focus on the poem “Blink Your Eyes” by Sekou Sundiata. You can see a video of Sekou Sundiata performing the poem here.

Sekou Sundiata more or less invented the style of reciting that became one of the staples of the poetry slam: a sort of fast-talking, musical delivery where the poet memorizes and performs the poem on stage, saying the words as quickly as possible. Sekou was not only the originator of this form, he was one of the most accomplished practitioners of it. He didn’t just rush through a poem, though. He sped up and slowed down his delivery based on the meaning of the words, and used the microphone in creative ways to achieve certain effects.

Sekou Sundiata
Sekou Sundiata was born in New York City in 1948 and grew up in housing projects in Harlem. He preferred to record his poems rather than publish them. Sekou often performed with a back-up band. All his life he dealt with serious health issues, ranging from cancer to a kidney transplant to breaking his neck in a car accident. He died in 2007 at the age of 58, a terrible loss for poetry.

Sekou Sundiata wrote “Blink Your Eyes” in the mid-1990s, but the topic is all-too current today—an African American male is stopped by a police officer with no grounds. The poem is strongly resonant in the wake of the police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati; William Chapman in Portsmouth, Virginia; Akai Gurley in Brooklyn—tragically, the list goes on and on.

The diction and tone of Sekou’s poem are different from pure lamentation. “Blink Your Eyes” is also a protest. The mood is angry, expressing outrage at racial profiling by police officers. Inherent in possibly all lamentation is a note of protest against the way things are. A lament doesn’t have to be a call to action, though. But a lament is a call of some kind, even if it’s just a call to mourn. When does a work of literature become more of a protest and less of a lament? To me, lament focuses on the sense of loss, while protest underlines the urgency to remedy the situation that is creating the loss.

In “Blink Your Eyes,” Sekou uses rhyme, cadence, and techniques of poetry that in other contexts might seem corny, but here they add to the soul of the poem and provide important emphasis.

There is a marked difference between how he recites the poem and how it appears on the page. To see the text of the poem, view this webpage. Sekou doesn’t recite the words in the same order they appear on the page. He repeats words that aren’t repeated on the page. Why? There is a strong element of improvisation in his performance technique, an element drawn from jazz. The written text of a poem for Sekou Sundiata was like a chart for a musician—a guide to performing but not a hardened rule about how each note was meant to be played.

At times in the poem Sekou Sundiata barely seems to pause to take a breath. He used a technique called circular breathing. Australian aborigines developed this method to play sustained notes on the didgeridoo. Sekou studied circular breathing and created a similar technique to recite long sequences of poetry without stopping. He also knew how to pause at the right moment, though, to put weight on the meaning of a particular phrase, for instance, the ironic line, “Somebody had to stop you.”

There’s a beautiful video interview with Sekou Sundiata done by E. Ethelbert Miller that you can watch here where Sekou talks about his influences from Amiri Baraka to the black church, performance and poetry, writing and political activism, and combining poetry and music. One of the most profound moments in the interview is when Sekou Sundiata discusses how to know when a poem is finished, referencing a John Coltrane solo. 

Praise and Lament, Part 1, Part 2

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Friday, August 7, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 2: Lorca and the Lament of the Spurned Lover

One of the most obvious forms of lament is the song of the spurned lover. The theme of this sort of poem is: I love you, but you don’t love me, what the heck is the matter with you? This is not as easy a poem to write as many sixteen-year-olds believe. In fact, it’s quite difficult to do well. Why? Because that state of mind is almost inevitably swamped by self-pity and by a presumption of expecting undying love that is almost aggressive. This type of emotion is rarely charming or deserving of sympathy. But it can be done well. One of my favorite works in this vein is a poem by the great Spanish writer Federico García Lorca.

Lorca at the Alhambra in Granada
Lorca explored lamentation as deeply and as lyrically as any poet. It’s hard to think of a poem by Lorca that is not in some ways a lament. One of his most famous poems is titled “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías,” a poem of mourning for a dear friend, a bullfighter who died in the ring.

The jilted lover poem by Lorca I’d like to focus on is called in W.S. Merwin’s translation, “Gacela of Unforeseen Love,” and in Catherine Brown’s translation, “Ghazal of Love Unforeseen.”

Lorca called his poem a ghazal, but is is not exactly a ghazal—I don’t think there was much information available to Lorca about the form of the ghazal,. The poem is ghazal-like in its mood, since a ghazal is also, traditionally, a lament. And Lorca's poem is slightly similar to ghazal in structure, since it’s in couplets. Here’s a translation that I did myself, partly based on previous translations:

Federico García Lorca

Ghazal of Unexpected Love

Nobody understood the perfume
of the dark magnolia of your belly.
Nobody saw how you martyred
a hummingbird of love between your teeth.

A thousand Persian ponies dozed off
in the moonlit plaza of your brow
while for four nights I laced myself
around your waist, that nemesis of snow.

Between the gypsum and the jasmine, your gaze
was a pale branch of seeds. 
With my chest I tried to carve
for you the ivory letters forever

and forever; garden of my torment,
your body a fugitive forever,
I can still taste your blood in my mouth,
your mouth with no candle lit for my death.

One of the great qualities of this poem is its unusual imagery. The images are dreamlike. The surreal quality seem to match the subject of the poem—a lover who has disappeared, his presence as powerful and fleeting as a dream. The pain of his loss also pushes the speaker into a world of emotions and imagery that is beyond ordinary reality.

Lorca’s imagery is also exquisite:

A thousand Persian ponies dozed off
in the moonlit plaza of your brow…

…the perfume
of the dark magnolia of your belly

It feels as if this beauty of language is also relevant to the poem’s subject. A lament should create something beautiful, exquisite, even. Why? What about describing loss demands beauty? Does it somehow dignify the sense of loss, and counterbalance the loss itself to turn it into something beautiful, to make it into something lasting, such as a great poem? 

There is another side to this lament I haven’t talked about. Some of you may have read my blog on the ghazal. The ghazal comes from Arabic originally. Lorca grew up in Andalusia, a region of Spain that was a center during the golden age of Moorish Spain, when the Iberian peninsula was under enlightened Muslim rule in the Middle Ages. During this time in Spain, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived side by side in relative harmony. Granada, the city where Lorca grew up, was the last area to fall to Ferdinand and Isabella when they reconquered Spain during the Inquisition. Ferdinand and Isabella retook Granada in 1492, the same year they commissioned Columbus to seek out the New World. 

Granada is also the site of the Alhambra, a gorgeous fortress/palace that dates from Spain’s Muslim era. I first saw the Alhambra when I was hitchhiking through Europe at age 18 in 1970. The Alhambra—to use the idiom of that time—blew my mind. It’s one of the most beautiful places humankind has ever constructed.

In Lorca’s time, Spain’s Muslim past was dishonored, particularly in Granada, which was a strongly conservative and Catholic city. Lorca was murdered there at the very beginning of the Spanish Civil War. In his final and posthumously published collection of poetry, Divan of the Tamrit, Lorca wanted to honor the multicultural nature of Andalusia’s unique mix of cultures: gypsies, Jews, Muslims, and Christians all lived together there and helped form the culture of that province. Andalusia is also the home of distinctive art forms: flamenco and cante jondo or deep song, the music that flamenco is danced to. In the “Ghazal of Unexpected Love,” Lorca is lamenting lost love, a golden era of love, but also a golden era of Spain’s history.

To summarize lessons from Lorca’s lament—it’s important for the person lamenting to maintain a certain dignity. The artistry of the lament has to be worthy of the depth of the loss. Also, a lament can involve mourning on many levels, not just one person or one thing. 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 1: Types of Lamentation

This series of blogs deals with praise and lament, two modes of writing that make up a large portion of literature. I’m going to focus on poetry in these blogs, but in a sense, many works of prose, both fiction and nonfiction, are also praises or laments. For example, all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past could be considered a lament. Proust’s thousand-page novel laments the impossibility of holding onto the past—and holding onto love.

Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book on the effects of pesticides on the environment, Silent Spring, could also be seen as a lament. What is Carson lamenting in her milestone book? I would say she’s lamenting the absence of a world in which humankind lives in harmony with the natural world. 

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is a lament for the moral destruction of an entire country, or an entire generation, or for the hope of a better world that the Russian Revolution represented at a certain point in history.

On the praise side, Jack Kerouac’s novels On the Road and Dharma Bums could be seen as hymns to the lifestyle and values and tastes of the Beat Generation. Terry Ryan’s memoir, The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, a book about how her mother overcame countless obstacles to provide sustenance and excitement for her family, is also a hymn of praise.

I think it’s easier to talk about praise and lament through poetry, though, in part because a poem presents a microcosm that’s easier to study than an entire work. And partly because I know more about poetry.

I’d like to begin by talking about lament. What sorts of things would a person want to lament in a piece of writing? Well, to name a few: death, loss of faith, losing a lover, losing a loved one or friend or acquaintance, tragedy, war, injustice. What is the common denominator among all these subjects? I’d say it’s loss: the sense that something that should be present in one person’s life, or in many people’s lives, or is no longer present, or has never been present.

There are many forms of writing or speech or song that traditionally are laments. Among them are elegies, eulogies, sermons, sonnets, ghazals, or the blues.


In the next installment, I’ll discuss a common form of lament, the song of the spurned lover.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Plot or the Unfolding of the Characters’ Fates: Two Ways of Writing a Story

Several types of literary works have a narrative structure involving a fictional story: novels, plays, short stories, and screenplays, to name the most obvious. I’ve noticed that these narratives tend to fall into two strikingly different categories, which I’ll call a plot and the unfolding of the characters’ fates.

Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me
A plot has the quality of an actual plot, as in a scheme to accomplish something, not always something honest. I’m thinking of a plot to commit a crime, for instance. In a plot, there is a deliberate plan to accomplish a certain aim, with multiple steps. The element of suspense is crucial—will the intrigue work out as calculated or not? The goal is known, at least to the conspirators, but the outcome is in doubt. A plot in fiction is also vaguely dishonest—it's an attempt to deceive the reader, or at least to create an ending the reader can't completely guess.

The types of fiction that most obviously have a plot of this sort are mystery novels and films that involve suspense. Will the bad guy triumph, or will the good guys win out? Will the events that the audience or readers have been clued to expect take place as anticipated, or will a different result transpire? The author carefully plants clues in the mind of the readers/audience so they eagerly anticipate certain possible outcomes. The motto of this sort of story might be Janet Burroway’s dictum in her book Writing Fiction that, “only trouble is interesting,” since getting into and out of trouble is the engine of the plot.

On the other hand, there is the type of story where there isn’t a strong element of suspense. Then how does the reader/audience get interested and stay engaged? From the involvement with the characters, for one thing. It’s not so much that you’re waiting to see if things turn out the way you expect. You just want to spend time with those characters and watch them develop and realize their fates. And you also want to spend time with the author, to hear that voice describe certain moments in the story. The little moments themselves flavor the narrative.

To clarify, here are some examples of both types of stories.

In Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations the author prompts the reader to anticipate certain outcomes, or to guess certain outcomes. Will the escaped convict Abel Magwitch return to seek vengeance on Pip, the main character? Will Pip escape his sister’s tyrannical rule? Who is Pip’s benefactor and when will Pip find that out? Will making his fortune ruin Pip’s likeable character? Who will Pip marry—Estella, Biddy, or no one? Will Compeyson succeed in getting his revenge on Magwitch? There are so many ways in which Dickens successful whets the appetite of the reader to know what is going to happen next. To a great extent, that is what keeps the reader turning the pages of Great Expectations. Dickens is a classic example of plot-driven fiction.

On the other hand, think of a book like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Certainly, Mrs. Dalloway is no less great a novel than Great Expectations. For my taste, much greater. But there is very little plot to Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is giving a party in London on a particular day in June 1923. Try reading a summary of the plot of this novel, such as this one, for instance. Not much happens. A character commits suicide, but it’s someone who is peripheral to the main action of the story, and the title character doesn’t really know the character who takes his life.

What we do want to know in Mrs. Dalloway is how the fates of the characters unfold. Will Peter Walsh find happiness in his love life, or will he be forever discontent and restless? Will Clarissa settle back into her married life? But these are not urgent, life-or-death questions. They are just puzzles that Clarissa Dalloway, and through her, the reader, muses on. It’s that extraordinary musing that makes the novel so engaging: “She [Mrs. Dalloway] sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.

What makes Mrs. Dalloway an engaging book is quite different from what makes a Dickens novel a good read. A Virginia Woolf novel is propelled by the reader’s interest in realistic characters, and the small moments that contain larger truths. Is that enough to sustain a reader through hundreds of pages? If the author is really good, yes. Look at Marcel Proust, who sustains this for a thousand pages.

I just listened to the audiobook of Maggie Shipstead’s terrific novel about ballet, Astonish Me. There is very little suspense in that book, though it does end up having a fairly intricate story. But there is much to think about and savor along the way. Maggie Shipstead uses metaphor in a way that most poets would envy, and she understands her characters' hearts.

Neither method of engaging a reader/audience in a story is easy to do well. To make a plot grab you right from the start and hold onto your anticipation takes a gifted and skilled literary writer. To continually deliver twists that are surprising but not so unpredictable they seem unlikely or impossible to guess, is even harder.

It’s equally difficult to create characters who are lifelike enough to make the reader want to know more about their fates, and how those fates resemble and throw light on our own destiny or the fate of those we know, and to enliven each turn of phrase so that it lifts the reader forward.


These two methods of storytelling are actually related. A good suspense novel lacks color if we are not engaged with the characters and how their fates unfold. A strong novel of character and style becomes a bore if there is no suspense, no unresolved question that we want to know the answer to. But it’s interesting to see where a story falls on the continuum where one side is suspense, and the other is the pleasure of the small moments in the prose.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Marcel Proust on Love

Sometimes, in reading Marcel Proust’s great novel, it seems as if he is clueless on the subject of love. There are passages in In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past (the title changes depending on the translation), where the narrator seems oblivious to the realities of his own heart.

Portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris
For instance, in the second volume of the novel, Within a Budding Grove, the narrator gets the brush-off from his big crush, Gilberte: “On several occasions I sensed that Gilberte was anxious to put off my visits.” Duh! It took him this long to get the hint?

What about the fact that the narrator’s excitement in seeing Gilberte is ten times hers whenever they meet? And what about the reality that no one could possibly feel comfortable with the narrator’s overbearing love? He wanted to “smother” Gilberte with flowers every single day, until he found out by chance she had a boyfriend, when he glimpsed them walking together on the Champs-Elysées. How could he not have guessed?

In any case, it takes the narrator another 65 pages, closely spaced, finally to conclude, “I had arrived at a state of almost complete indifference to Gilberte.” Even then, incredibly, he’s still shlepping the torch for her—he is so pained by his beloved’s rejection that he can’t bear to set eyes on her.

Here is perhaps Proust’s most famous pronouncements on love, from this same section of the novel: “No doubt very few people understand the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon that we call love, or how it creates, so to speak, a supplementary person, distinct from the person whom the world knows by the same name, a person most of whose constituent elements are derived from ourselves."


But is love purely a subjective phenomenon? Is the beloved really only a phantom third person to the lover? Maybe some of the time, but then what is all this talk about, “I just wanna get next to you,” to quote the old soul tune, so often repeated in current rap songs. Not to mention the five billion condoms sold each year worldwide. I’m not convinced that the subjective nature of love is Proust’s most “penetrating” insight.

What I do love about Proust’s understanding of love are those passages where he has X-ray vision into the truth of human emotions. In the midst of the narrator’s angst about Gilberte, for instance, there are sentences that are so honest and full of close observation of the heart and its trickery, that no one else could untangle those feelings:

“We are, when in love, in an abnormal state, capable of giving at once to the most apparently simple accident, an accident which may at any moment occur, a seriousness which in itself it would not entail. What makes us so happy is the presence in our hearts of an unstable element which we contrive perpetually to maintain and of which we cease almost to be aware so long as it is not displaced.”

What an incredible description of someone in love—that altered state, where the presence of the beloved in the lover’s mind and body electrifies even trivial moments! And isn’t it so true that the excitement of love is partly the way it kicks over our everyday experience and makes us tremble with life for that very reason? This passage is an example of where Proust’s insights into love really hit home for me. You have to dig for those nuggets in his prose, rather than taking his theory as his only dictum on the subject of love.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka