26 February 2011

Love poems

One of the things Don Paterson got right in his lamentable article about Shakespeare's Sonnets was that they're almost useless as love poems. Shakespeare is just too ambiguous, too complex, for simple declarations of love. (Last time I was in love, some years ago, sadly, I had to write my own sonnets. Well, I had to, once I realised my truelove's name was fourteen letters long. Don't worry, I'm not going to share the three acrostic sonnets I wrote. Not out of shame, but because they would of course reveal my truelove's name.)

The Casa Fernando Pessoa is currently running a series of 'Poemas de amor' and today's poema is by Pessoa himself (I think in his own name). Here it is:


Como te amo? Não sei de quantos modos vários
Eu te adoro mulher de olhos azuis e castos;
Amo-te co’o fervor dos meus sentidos gastos;
Amo-te co’o fervor dos meus preitos diários.

É puro o meu amor, como os puros sacrários;
É nobre o meu amor, como os mais nobres fastos;
É grande como os mar’s altíssonos e vastos
É suave como o odor de lírios solitários.

Amor que rompe enfim os laços crus do ser;
Um tão singelo amor, que aumenta na ventura;
Um amor tão leal que aumenta no sofrer;

Amor de tal feição que se na vida escura
É tão grande e nas mais vis ânsias de viver,
Muito maior será na paz da sepultura!

A sonnet, obviously, and I didn't at first realise it's a version of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (obviously I recognised the first line, but thought it was a homage):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

And, realising that this is from her Sonnets from the Portuguese, I wonder how far back we can go. EBB's sonnets were not translations, but referred to Camoes.

All of which obscures the point I first set out to make: that Pessoa's poem is just as useless a love poem as any of Shakespeare's. In his version, trust me, non-lusophones, the love is more sterile and cold. EBB contemplates God choosing a separation in death; Pessoa's poem seems to actively wish for death, so that the love may be perfected.

I have to say, I think EBB's version is much better than Pessoa's and not just because of this. There seems to me to be more variety and belief in it. The latinate construction of Pessoa's last tercet, for example, is too clever. Pessoa's pretending to be in love, while EBB seems to be the real thing, AND intriguingly contrasts the human love of now with the love of "lost saints". But even in EBB you (finally) hit the problem: is it really romantic to suggest that you'll love someone even better when you're dead than you do now? Well, it works with Wuthering Heights... But the power of EBB is that she's writing about her own situation; we don't share it. Pessoa is attempting to generalise, but the poem is contaminated with a sense that marble is the best flesh.

01 February 2011

J H Prynne

Well, at least there's an excuse for reading this slowly.
Anyone who turns is more than
the same, being in desire the pivot
of what he would most want: or
in point of fact, they say,
driving through the
early morning, to go to it.

Those are the opening lines of "How It's Done", one of the earliest poems in this huge doorstep of a book. What the hell's going on? I don't know and if I were to type out the rest of the poem (21 more lines) it wouldn't help you or me.

But I'm not in despair. And the best entrance into this poetry is (inevitably) the language. That tone of voice, I can already tell, is characteristic of Prynne: the rhythm suggests a kind of scientific discourse, but detached from any obvious referent. Actually, there is one obvious referent, which is language itself. Scraps of the text seem to challenge their own construction: in the above, for example, the second three lines might be enjoying the fact that the words normally are so easy to understand, and questioning what sort of understanding that is.

Maybe - but I won't know until I've uncomprehendingly read a lot more. And it may be comforting to think of this view by Alain Robbe-Grillet:
... today, like yesterday, new works have no reason to exist unless they in their turn bring to the world new significations, still unknown to the authors themselves, significations which will only exist later, thanks to these works, and upon which society will establish new values, which in turn will be useless, or even harmful, when they are used to judge the literature then being made. (Robbe-Grillet 1961 p123)

I've left significations untranslated. I don't think it just means "meanings" - it's also the process of meaning, the way words mean something. I love the thought that new literature always has to be strange and modern: the writer always has to produce something that he or she can't explain. By the time we can explain it, it's superseded, in one sense.

But actually, is it comforting? To know we'll always lag behind the wave ... That's the pain of doing criticism, Robbe-Grillet says, while a "simple" reader only needs to know if the book is moving and involving.

Looking back a few entries to the discussion of Katherine Howard, though, you can see that a modern book gives the reviewer some of the difficulties Robbe-Grillet talks about, and that a non-modern book doesn't. Once the world is pretty much agreed on how a 19th century realist novel, or a 20th century historical novel, works, reviewing one is largely a matter of measuring the book against the template. Modern works don't have a template. That's their definition perhaps.

And this is why I don't accept the notion of post-modernism. Any modernism is doomed to be overtaken by the next one.