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.

A Sunset Reflection 

I took this photo on a sunset run and added the words (surprise! They were not actually fabulous skywriting!) as I was doing some reading later. The exercise, combined with the wisdom of St. Hildegard, were a welcome relief to an emotional day. 

Sometimes on overcast days like today, we fail to remember the sun. Yet, by grace, it descends to us each evening, casting its warm glow over the earth and tempering the darkness with the promise of its brilliant return come dawn. 

What a marvelous image this is of the reality we know as Believers. (Plato has me on an image-reality thought trend.) As beautiful as sunsets are, they are a mere flicker of the splendor of the True Son who humbled Himself for us. Likewise, although we run in a darkened world, He has already risen with splendor beyond any sunrise…and, in Him, so shall we! We live in the purgatory between sunset and the sunrise, but our hope is more sure than the dawn. The race is not in vain, for the Lord gives us the wings to overcome; through His comfort, we can rest in the promise that joy comes not only in the morning, but through mourning. 

Literary Tourism

Don’t be a tourist. I don’t mean don’t travel; by all means, see the world and explore new places! But don’t be a tourist, defined as “a person who travels for pleasure, especially sight-seeing and staying in hotels.”

 

That doesn’t sound so bad, but can one really experience a place through simply seeing sights and staying in hotels? No! To truly travel, one cannot be a basic tourist; one must be an explorer, investigating unfamiliar places and actually living in them, even if just for a few days. In France, a tourist might see the Eiffel Tower, but an explorer bicycles around Paris in search of tiny bakeries and the perfect macarons. In London, a tourist will stay safe and dry inside the red double-decker buses, but an explorer would wander the rainy streets alongside the locals until breaking for a steaming cup of tea.

 

In the same way, a tourist visiting my home state of Arizona will pick up a postcard with a stereotypical desert scene (tumbleweeds, mountains, and a few saguaro cacti thrown in for good measure) but will not realize that there is so much more to this state. Sure, we have the Grand Canyon (all tourists know that) but as majestic as the desert and canyon are, Arizona has so much more to offer! We have haboobs (its not a naughty word, I promise; they are massive dust storms), the most colorful sunsets I’ve ever seen, cities full of attractions, and even snowy mountains! Just the other day I posted a video of myself throwing snow into the air on Instagram and a college friend of mine commented “I thought you lived in Arizona!” Well, I do, but to anyone who just looks at AZ from a tourist perspective, the snow and pine trees are inconsistent with the dusty and hot images portrayed in media and even on our license plates. However, Arizona is more than just “gila monsters and tarantulas”, as some Maine resident so eloquently put it and it is easy to discover this if one puts out the necessary effort as an explorer.

 

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Snow between the desert and the mountains… Arizona is full of surprises!

 

How does this relate to literature? Well, just as one cannot fully experience a place from a few cheap postcards and a couple bus rides past the most famous monuments, one cannot grasp the full significance of a novel from its labels and, I venture to say, its misconceptions.

 

Take Tolstoy’s self-proclaimed masterpiece Anna Karenina for example. On the cover of a film adaption of the book, it was described as “Tolstoy’s tragic story of star-crossed lovers.” NO. NO NO NO NO NO. THIS IS NOT A LOVE STORY!!!

 

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Alternate Title: Gone with the Wind, Russian Edition

 

I’m not sure if the cover designer for this film adaption did not read the book or was just stupid, but either way, he completely missed the point. In zeroing in on the obvious story of the lust-affair (I refuse to recognize it as love) between Anna and Vronsky, the cover designer and potentially the reader/viewer is acting as a tourist, reducing a great work of literature to a mere soap opera, thus doing Tolstoy and him or herself a disservice in failing to grasp the more essential messages of the novel.

 

For instance, in gasping over the central scandal of A.K., the reader might miss the search for spiritual peace that serves as Levin’s motivation even more so than his desire for a family. Similarly, the conflict between the traditional Russian ways and the industrializing Western practices might be forgotten, erasing any true comprehension of the context of the novel within history and society. More concerning, however, is that in overlooking such essential themes, the reader forgoes the opportunity to make connections between these ideas and those within other works of literature and even within his or her own life. Questions raised by an analytical reading of the text such as “what is the role of desire?” and “is everything motivated by a sense of self-service?” cannot be answered if one is relying solely on the most basic understanding of plot. Certainly the deterioration of morality and the struggle of desires found directly within the affair between Anna and Vronsky is significant, but in mislabelling this as a romance or love between “star-crossed lovers”, the reader runs the risk of missing even these most obvious themes and becoming a literary tourist who is concerned only with the surface. This provides entertainment, just as looking at a postcard or snapping a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower provides entertainment and perhaps even a sense of accomplishment, but ultimately it is not as rewarding as truly dedicating oneself to analyzing and drawing less obvious insights from the novel through literary exploration.

 

To be a literary explorer is to abandon the beaten path of skimming and summarizing, to delve into a book and search for underlying themes and hidden details. It means to live within the novel, making connections and pondering implications, rather than simply to take snapshots of quotes without understanding their context or characters without examining their motivations. Just as to have a more accurate and full knowledge of the world, one must act as an explorer rather than a tourist, to be a genuinely good reader, one must abandon the shallows of literary tourism and explore the greater depths of analysis.

 

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This is me in Salzburg, Austria. Tourists would never dare ride unicorns, but an explorer like myself would. 😉

 

To close, consider this: If you were to travel to London, what would you most remember: seeing Buckingham Palace or finding the yummiest meat pie in a hole-in-the-wall pub? Or in Paris, would you value seeing the Mona Lisa with thousands of other people in the Louvre or finding a piece of brilliant art for sale by a local? In Arizona, would you remember the scorching sun or the many different climates? In the same way, as a reader, when you finish a novel, will you remember only the most prominent story or will you choose to explore beyond what can be learned from SparkNotes summaries? Ultimately, it is your choice, but as both a traveler and bookworm, I can assure you that playing the explorer is always the most rewarding (and most exciting) role.

A Bookish take on New Years Resolutions

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As with every new year, we find ourselves drafting lists of resolutions. Eat healthier. Wake up early. Finish that novel. Run. Get to know that person. Keep your room clean. Practice daily. We all know these resolutions and, more likely than not, we’ve all broken them. Every year it seems we make the same sort of resolutions and the disappointing pattern becomes- well- dull. Perhaps it is time we made some different resolutions and, since, coming up with them can be a struggle, I’ve managed to poll our favorite literary characters for input. (How, you ask? Well I have all of these characters on speed-dial, clearly.) Maybe this year is the year to make a resolution inspired by the wisdom of literary legends, and- who knows?- maybe this will be the year where you’ll finally keep your resolution to the end!

 

 “What is your top New Year’s Resolution?” as answered by our favorite literary characters: 

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” –Anne of Green Gables

Anne Shirley: Cherish dear friends and make new ones.

 

“There is a stubbornness in me that can never bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises above any attempt to intimidate me.” –Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth Bennet: Be less concerned with the opinions of others.

 

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. I must tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” –Pride and Prejudice

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Share feelings honestly and respectfully.

 

“My mind…rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis…I crave for mental exaltation.” –Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of the Four

Sherlock Holmes: Be ever curious and value opportunities to learn.

 

“Courage is knowing you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” –To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus Finch: Persevere despite all challenges.

 

“Tomorrow is another day.” –Gone with the Wind

Scarlett O’Hara: Don’t dwell on the failures of the day; tomorrow brings another chance.

 

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” –Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre: Appreciate freedom and enjoy independence.

“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea- any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Good bye!” –The Hobbit

Bilbo Baggins: Be more open to adventures.

“My principal sin is doubt. I doubt everything, and am in doubt most of the time.” –Anna Karenina

Konstantin Levin: Let go of self-doubt.

 

What’s my resolution? My answer is “all of the above.” Happy New Year everyone! Let’s make this an exciting chapter in our lives!

Literary Madness: A Dangerous Disease Affecting Readers Everywhere

It’s over. It is finished. No, wait… one more annotation. Now. Now it is finished. But it isn’t! Arghhh!!!
I know it is considered bad writing to use numerous exclamation marks, but I suffer from a fever that only excessive use of them can cure! (See, that sentence did not even need one, but my current state of excitement made me put it there despite the protests of my inner editor! Ahh! Another! And another!)

Okay… I am calm again. I suppose I should explain the cause of my outburst, but to do that, I will have to diagnose and define an illness particular to bookworms like myself: Literary Madness.

This disease features symptoms such as screaming in shock, questioning the meaning of humanity and existence in general, spontaneous bouts of crying, irrational anger towards fictional characters, and the inability to stop annotating or quoting. Attacks of Literary Madness are triggered by in-depth reading and analyzing of any piece of writing that leads to an unnaturally high level of emotion and thought. These attacks come generally without warning and can last for as little as three seconds or as long as weeks. There is, as of yet, no definite cure, for like writer’s block and writer’s despair, Literary Madness is brushed aside as a pseudo-disease by medical professionals. (However, my elevated heart rate and pounding headache indicate that it is more serious than they believe! <- snap, there’s another exclamation mark…deep breaths, Ryanne…) However, for any unfortunate reader who falls victim to an attack of L.M., it has been found that symptoms may be eased by taking a solitary walk, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling fan, watching paranormal documentaries on Netflix (or British dramas, if those are not your cup of tea), and perusing satirical memes on Pinterest.

Okay, now that we’ve established what Literary Madness is, I believe that it is obvious that I am suffering from a severe case of it. Granted, my entire life seems to be one continuous attack of L.M., but right now it has peaked and I am displaying nearly every symptom. (I have not yet screamed aloud, mostly because my family has company…) What has brought on this attack? The answer is one word, one book, and a multitude of implications, thoughts, questions, and emotions: Frankenstein.

I realize that I called this book an “Intellectual” in my last post, and while my label remains unchanged, I have found a morbid pleasure in rereading it, unveiling allusions I previously missed, tackling questions I had scribbled in its margins, and wondering about its connections to the author, to me, to humanity. Do you see now why my mind was in such a whirl? I am by no means calling Frankenstein the epitome of literary greatness, but it raised so many questions about what it means to be human, what defines good and evil, and what mankind’s position in the universe is, how can I help my mind from dancing and pondering every possible implication of its words? How can I help using exclamation points?!?!

If you’ve survived my rant to this point, I offer my sincerest thanks. Not many people can handle an attack of Literary Madness themselves, let alone that of another person. If you’ve continued reading to this point, I offer my sincerest apologies, for you too probably are afflicted with this disease. If you don’t believe me, try reading Frankenstein; I can guarantee you will, in one way or another, have your first attack of Literary Madness.