Poetic Love

A year ago today I picked up a copy of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey in a Waterstones in Cambridge. I read it cover-to-cover without sitting and — admittedly — without purchasing it. I was intrigued, but, when I closed it and placed it back on its display, I realized that the fascination I’d felt with Kaur’s poetry was no different than the sensual interest I might have felt for a moody text post on Pinterest or Tumblr.

Now, I am thrilled to see poets gaining recognition at this level. Miss Kaur’s books are New York Times Bestsellers and clearly they speak to a lot of hurting people. I am pleased to see them promoting empathy in their expression of sensitive subjects such as emotional and sexual abuse. However, as a literary critic, I must raise some concerns.

Are these poems surviving on their merit as well-crafted works of art? Or, conversely, are they selling because of their sensualism and apparent relevance? Can we expect them to endure the test of time to rest beside the Dickensons, the Frosts, Eliots, and Wordsworths?

Perhaps it is unfair to ask that final question. I like to consider myself a fair poet, but I am also realistic; I am no literary giant and my poetry will not likely be studied in schools or mounted on plaques. Still, though, I think it is a duty of discernment to consider whether modern poetry such as Rupi Kaur’s is actually succeeding due to its artistic merit or whether it simply appeals to the emotionalism and liberalism of the current age.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms.

I understand the thrust of this statement. Free love denies the fidelity of monogamy, the bonds of family, and the commitment of friendship. An idea that sounds like the multiplication of a good thing (love), in actuality leads to a devaluing of its virtue. Without a sense of consent, commitment, and collaboration within a loving relationship, there is no security and envy, competition, guilt, and distrust will inevitably rear their ugly heads. Free love in this sense is no longer love.

Applying this idea to poetry is, on the surface, a pleasing parallel. Without structure, a poet might think she has more freedom. However, these very boundaries are what force creative problem-solving, clever turns-of-phrase, and focused expression. Shakespeare’s sonnets might have been written without their characteristic structure, but they would have become a formless, romantic soup rather than the noble, innovative works of literary architecture we know today.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate” could never have endured had Shakespeare taken a more Rupi Kaur-esque approach and penned something along the lines of:

You were the summer
hot and wet:
my sun
and yet
you burn.

Now, this is a poor translation between styles and it sorely abused the subject matter. But doesn’t it feel almost painfully forced? The lack of structure made the poem spineless, all emotion and self-expression and with no creative, rational thought or construction.

In this, I can understand Chesterton’s point. Without the commitment to structure and poetic rules, there is less of a chance of the poem making objective sense; it becomes too subjective to be understood and to endure beyond the self and those like that self. It becomes like free love: a delicious idea that is not built to withstand the hard truth that human beings crave consistency and order.

However, I do believe there is a unique beauty and purpose to free verse poetry. Free love in the sense of love without any sense of confines or commitment is certainly an idea doomed to fall into license, but love that operates solely by rules and requirements becomes legalism. The heart of it will either be poisoned by total freedom or hardened by lack of genuine affection.

This brings us to the idea of poetic license, which might more properly be defined as poetic love. For the love of the poem, a poet chooses to follow structure to support its subject, but also to deviate from that structure when necessary to support the poem’s affection. In this, both reason and emotion are given enough elbow room, and are brought into cooperation with each other. For the love of this literary art, we poets must carefully and intentionally choose where we will follow the rules to give our poem a sturdy skeleton and where we will bend them to make its flesh more alluring.

This can, believe it or not, be accomplished in both the strictest of sonnets as well as the most seemingly free of verse. However, sonnets must sometimes compromise an exact rhyme here or a little inflection there to avoid becoming mechanical, whereas free verse must invoke some sort of internal structure to prevent becoming a milksop.

I can think of no better example of this than T.S. Eliot, who is a master of metaphor and theme and uses both as unifying devices so that even the most abstract of verses retain a resounding echo of purpose, sense, and decision. There is not a half-hearted word or phrase to be found in Eliot.

For the sake of ease, however, I will use a collection of my own poems as an example. A few years ago, I wrote my first collection of free verse poetry based on the healings in the Gospel of Mark. (These can be found at https://inkarnationpress.com/2019/07/10/immediately-eight-poems-on-the-gospel-of-mark/)

As a dogmatic, conservative soul, I admit that free verse has always made me uncomfortable. (Sylvia Plath and I have just now started to get along, whereas good ‘ole Robert Frost and I have been childhood friends.) However, the sense of spontaneity — of utter brokenness being drawn back into wholeness and life — in these stories of healing demanded freer form.

Still, these are stories of disorder being reordered in Christ, so it would have been almost blasphemous to write them without any sense of structure. Stealing from the scriptures, I employed the recurring word “immediately,” as well as the inherent parallelism found in the gospel accounts to stitch my poems together and give them both arc and depth.

There is value in poems such as Rupi Kaur’s in that they provide their poets a way of healing, just as writing my Mark collection was an exercise in devotion and wholeness. However, what is lacking in these popular poems is a sense of internal unity and apparent structure. Themes of brokenness and resilience are found throughout, but is that enough? Within the individual poems, I only seem to find random line breaks and sentences that would have made more sense left in a single line and pasted across an angsty Pinterest photo. It seems that the raw thrust of Kaur’s emotion is the only thing keeping her books selling. And, just as in love, that first burst of emotion cannot endure. As in any relationship, mutual understanding and effort are what produce lasting love. It is the same with poetry, which is so often born of love. Without a skeleton, flesh will eventually fold away; it is easy to write superficial, fleshy verses, while constructing and beautifying a skeleton meant to last takes skill that I am yet practicing.

For instance, I scribbled this fleshy bit of poetry in the span of a second:

Knock knock
I never said come in
but still
you
did.

I’m not even sure what it’s about, but it feels sensual enough to sell if I were to slap a badly drawn broken heart on it. In contrast, to write a sonnet of brokenness is not only to express the hurt, but to rebuild it into something ordered and beautiful. A lament is a far cry from a complaint. (Consider the Psalms, which are authentic in brokenness, but continually return to order and trust.)

Poetry today is often used to express anger, sorrow, and ache and I do not want to devalue this vulnerability. It takes courage. It takes widening wounds to share them with others and this opens doors for empathy. In this, modern poetry such as Rupi Kaur’s is potentially helpful. However, art is — at least for the Christian —  fundamentally about order; it is about expressing, but also recreating and reorganizing. Writing broken lines and hastily-scribbled complaints may have value as self-expression, but without returning — both literally and literarily— to a balance of emotion and reason, heart and mind, there is little hope for redemption in both poem and poet.

The Necessity of the Reader: A Literary Criticism of Heart of Darkness

Modernist author Joseph Conrad once said that “of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us for they contain our thoughts… they resemble us in their precious hold on life.” According to Conrad, books not only act as the vessels that preserve the themes of human life, but as mirrors that reflect the variations of those themes found within each individual reader. This reflective relationship between the reader and the piece of literature is essential to the reader’s formation of a response to that particular work and is what keeps literature resonant over the course of the centuries, continuing to intrigue generations of readers. In his novella, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad purposefully relies on the ability of the reader to fill in gaps in order to establish the overarching theme of the ambiguity of the truth and ultimately ensure the novella’s enduring resonance.

From its first pages, Heart of Darkness leaves room for the reader to make assumptions and interpret events for him or herself. The novella is structured as a frame story, featuring two narrators with distinct voices and views, as demonstrated by the opening scene. The first narrator, who remains unnamed, describes the sun setting on a river port and speculates that this river has “known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled” (Conrad 47). Here he reveals his European perspective, seeing conquests as causes worthy of titles and remembrance. However, the main narrator, Marlow, reflects sarcastically on his time spent in London, saying, “I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you” (Conrad 51). Although he speaks humorously, Marlow is mocking the Eurocentric belief that white men have the right to invade the lands of those considered uncivilized. By immediately presenting these opposing views, Joseph Conrad creates the opportunity for the reader to decide which narrator, if either, to believe and sets the precedent for the development of a core theme: the ambiguous nature of reality. In Literary Themes for Students: Volume I, Anne Marie Hacht explains that the frame tale structure, with its capacity to present differing accounts and opinions, allows for the reader to generate his or her own interpretation as well because there is no set standard. The inherent unreliability of these narrators serves a similar purpose. For instance, Marlow declares vehemently to his listeners, “I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie,” yet at the end of his tale, he lies to the Intended, telling her that Kurtz’s last words were about his love for her when they had actually been vague cries of terror (Conrad 77, 145). This proves him changeable and deluded in his view of self and is exactly what Diane Telger discusses in her essay in Novels for Students. She explains that “by presenting a… narrator whose interpretation of events is often open to question, Conrad forces the reader to take an active part in the story’s construction.” Thus, by layering the novella as a frame story told by narrators with dubious views on truth, Conrad has rendered it essential for readers to fill in the narration gaps with their own ideas and alludes to the theme of the uncertainty of reality.

The gaps left for the reader to supplement with his or her own ideas are also used throughout the novella to communicate the central theme of the ambiguity of truth. Perhaps the strongest example of this is in the death scene of Kurtz, the powerful agent at the root of Belgian imperialism in the Congo. Before he dies, Kurtz utters the famous line, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 139). This line is remembered by all who read Heart of Darkness, yet Conrad offers no obvious explanation as to what it means. Do these dying words indicate a revelation? Are they a cry for forgiveness? Or are they simply the meaningless babble of a lunatic? No definite answer is presented and thus each individual reader is made responsible for deciding their significance. This not only gives readers further opportunity to complement the text with their personal responses, but advances the overarching theme of the ambiguous nature of truth; just as there is not a clear understanding of this line, truth is, according to the evidence in Heart of Darkness, undefined. Therefore, as readers formulate their own interpretations of this exclamation, they create their own truths and the theme of ambiguous reality is made apparent beyond the pages of the novella. In her critique of Heart of Darkness, Jennifer Lipka quotes Joseph Conrad, saying that the only “fundamental truth of fiction” is its enigmatic quality; it serves no purpose and cannot effectively convey its themes if it does not allow for the reader to wonder and develop his or her own opinions. In the same way, the light and dark motif is used as a building block in establishing the larger theme of the indefiniteness of reality. For instance, as the first narrator and Marlow wait for the tide to turn at the beginning of the novella, the setting is described using both light and dark imagery. The rapid fluctuation between descriptions such as “glowing white” and “immensity of unstained light” are immediately contrasted by phrases such as “brooding gloom” (Conrad 46). The reader is presented with two conflicting descriptions of the initial setting and must decide whether to envision it in the light or the darkness and then decide what each of those views might represent. Anne Marie Hacht explains in Literary Themes for Students that the use of light and dark imagery is employed “to convey ever-shifting meanings.” This furthers the central theme of the uncertainty of truth and compels the reader to take a definite stance as the focus of the novella itself flickers abruptly between light and dark, good and evil, clarity and confusion. Both the death scene of Kurtz and the light versus dark motif exhibit the speculative quality of the novella; by requiring the reader to make assumptions based upon his or her own experiences, the reader’s response is rendered vital to expressing the concept of truth as an ambiguous ideal, differing from reader to reader.

Similarly, the response of the individual reader to Heart of Darkness allows for its elements to be examined through different lenses, not only demonstrating the theme of the ambiguity of truth, but offering different ideas as to what this illusive truth could be. For example, the novella never makes it clear whether it is in favor of or satirizing the racist ideals of imperialism. While Conrad’s primary narrator, Marlow, uses derogatory terms such as “savages” to describe the natives of the Congo, certain passages such as that describing a young agent as “gentlemanly… with a little forked beard and a hooked nose” personify the Europeans as devils, indicating that perhaps he does not view them as superior after all (Conrad 73). The stance on racism, like truth, is kept in obscurity and readers must attempt to provide their own answers. Author Chinua Achebe once criticized Heart of Darkness as “an offensive and deplorable book” that does not deserve to be included in the literary canon due to what he considered to be its racist message. However, this is only his view; other critics such as Mark Kinkead-Weekes consider the novella to be “an imaginative counter to European arrogance and blindness about Africa.” Which is the correct answer? That, being an absolute truth, is never revealed by Conrad and the reader must decide based on his or her own knowledge and intuition.  The necessity of the reader to supply possible answers to the questions posed by Heart of Darkness is further evidenced by the scene in which Marlow comes across a curious portrait.  The painting depicts “a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch” on a “somber-almost black” background (Conrad 75). Blindness in literature generally indicates a failure to see truth and this, combined with the recurrence of the light versus dark motif in the torch and the black background, possibly indicates a failure to know truth, but a determination to pursue it despite the surrounding night of ignorance and confusion.  Granted, this is merely a speculation, as the novella offers no further explanation of the portrait. However, by providing multifaceted details that pose complex questions rather than presenting the reader with simple concepts and unequivocal answers, Conrad has painted his novella to allow for the representation of numerous viewpoints. This also serves to open the door for healthy controversy between readers with differing ideas and is exactly what Joseph Conrad aimed to do as an author. He once said that his goal was not simply to tell tales, but “to make you hear, to make you feel- it is, before all, to make you see.” Through details such as the portrait of the blind woman and the consistent lack of clear meanings, Conrad encourages his readers to form their own answers to the questions suggested by Heart of Darkness, thus opening their eyes to new ideas that extend beyond what is written in black and white. The truth remains undisclosed and reality undefined, but the reading experience, according to Anne Marie Hacht, is rewarding, for it fosters a new realm of independent thought.

The frame-tale structure, dominant theme of the ambiguity of the truth, and lack of answers to significant questions all indicate that the reader is left responsible for filling in the gaps of Heart of Darkness. Without allowing for the varied responses of the readers, the theme of the ambiguity of truth that is essential to the novella as a whole would fail to be developed. In the same way, Heart of Darkness would be lost in time as a work with a limited era of relevance; without allowing for interpretations to evolve and vary between readers of different times and places, it would have failed to remain resonant into the current generation. When Heart of Darkness was first published, it shocked its Victorian audience, but now it is acclaimed as one of the best English novellas ever written because the views of its readers have changed over time and the impressionistic quality of the novella has allowed for these altered views to be incorporated into new interpretations. As Joseph Conrad said, books hold a fascination for mankind because they act as mirrors, reflecting their readers within their pages and changing alongside them. Heart of Darkness, with its enduring theme of the ambiguity of truth and reality, is a prime example of this, for without the readers filling in its gaps, it would become like the pitiable Kurtz, hollow at the core with only empty words remaining.