≡ Menu

villanelle

A lifetime ago, I sat with some dear friends in their apartment discussing literature, music, and art as we drank wine. We gathered like this as often as we could. A small group of poets, novelists, painters, and musicians; we composed our own little salon. Elizabeth Bishop was the topic of conversation that night, and we grabbed her collected poems off the shelf. We passed it around for each person to take their turn reciting the poem “One Art” out loud. It was a marvelous time. Each brought their own voice, their own character to the poem and then uttered it forth. It was a night of joy connected through art but also a deepening insight into the subtlety of the poem itself. “One Art” is not easy to recite well. One has to be almost inspired to get it right. This is not a fault in the poem but a consequence of its precise insight and power, a result of its very success.

“One Art” was written in response to the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s longtime lover. Lota was visiting NY with Bishop, who came home one day to find Lota had taken an overdose of tranquilizers. She died several days later. The loss was devastating to Bishop. The depth of her love for Lota was profound and can be seen in Bishop’s letters. Although “One Art” does not identify the person it is about or even indicate the relationship of that person to the speaker, there is more than simply Bishop’s famed reticence in the absence of personal information. The absence is part of an overall effort to avoid the pain of loss. It is also part of why it’s not easy to recite the poem correctly. If one recites it as though every word were a mere statement of fact, it falls flat. If one recites it as though the art of losing really isn’t hard to master, then the most important part of the poem is itself lost. That’s because “One Art” is a kind of spell cast in the hope to dispel pain.

It’s fitting that this poem is made in the incantatory shape of a villanelle with its repetitions and rhymes. An incantation should be deeply lyrical and repetitive. Perhaps the music will distract the caster from the pain; perhaps the repetition will conjure belief and thus be successful. Its central hope is: if I say enough times that losing isn’t hard, maybe when I finally admit the real loss, it won’t hurt. But the overwhelming power of the poem, the source of its potency is that words are not strong enough to disperse such pain—the death of one’s most cherished person.

The speaker is shaken to the bottom of her being and does not believe a word of what she says. The pain in her refuses to be denied and rises against the utterance of the spell. To recite this poem aright, one must allow oneself to feel that pain, to feel at odds with every word you speak, desperately wanting to believe it but knowing it’s all fallacy and the pain of admitting that tenuous phrase, “even losing you,” is a shock to your foundations. It cannot and never will be easy. As you recount the ease of losing so many other things along the way: the watch, the keys, the house, rivers, a continent—each loss trying to be as big as the one you are terrified of admitting—as you recite all those other losses, the focus must be on “even losing you,” that must remain ever present in mind because every loss is about “losing you,” that one for whom all these loses are merely symbols and mean next to nothing, no matter how big they are. In addition to the failure of incantation, of words to dispel pain, this is another reason for the spell’s failure: “losing you” is not a symbol. It’s not an idea or a theme. A real living and loving person took their own life and each of the gestures and nuances of that life are gone. You can’t go out and have another made like a set of keys.

Perhaps I connect to this poem because I can picture certain people in my own past who died: my father, a coworker. I can see in my mind’s eye a particular gesture my father made: stroking his finger down his long nose and chuckling. Or I can hear that coworker’s way of articulating a particular joke he once told me—the way he arched his back and swayed his head as he uttered the punch line “Oh, baby, baby,” drawing out the a’s as though they were small hills his voice traveled over. It was unique. I can hear it and see it in my head, but I can’t imitate it to anyone because it’s not who I am. That loss is permanent. “One Art,” is an attempt to counteract the pain of the irreversible loss of that uniqueness. Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure. The same failure torments the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker wants to “cease upon the midnight with not pain.” But for him too, “the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do.” Both poems are an effort at self-deception.

Even including Jonathan Swift’s celebrated essay, A Modest Proposal, I don’t think there is a work in literature that is a better example of irony than Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Swift’s essay is more accessible because its central emotion is outrage. None of us are afraid to feel outrage. In fact, we sometimes indulge in outrage because it makes us feel smart or better than others. We like reading A Modest Proposal for these emotional reasons as much as the literary ones. I don’t mean to slight the accomplishment of A Modest Proposal. It’s a magnificent work. But “One Art” is more complicated because it requires that we access our own vulnerability to the incredible pain of loss, a pain that is inevitable for all of us. Everyone we love is going to die. To allow ourselves to face that fact is what this poem requires. It is terribly hard. It’s easier to admire the poem’s craft and travel its surface. It’s easier to pretend it’s a stale poem because it’s written in a fixed form, that it’s boring or outdated because it rhymes or has an almost singsong music. But these are excuses or failures of our ability to face what it embraces: that “even losing you” is an art that can never be mastered. Though so simple a word as “even” in the phrase “even losing you,” is weighted with the effort to add “you” to the catalogue of easily lost things, it fails. We are forever inept before the pain of losing those we love. That pain is felt profoundly because the form of the poem endeavors to create the illusion of control. It is why that parenthetical “(Write it!)” is so tormented and desperate, a kind of emotional paradox in the conflict between the power asserted by writing and the underlying emotional impotence.

In that other lifetime, reciting “One Art,” I was probably insulated from the full blow of the pain because I was surrounded by my friends. Then, I was also younger: my father was still alive; that coworker was still alive. I had experienced death, to be sure. But every death makes all the others resonate and makes a poem like this ring, gradually over a lifetime turning a single instrument into an orchestra. Emerging from my own recital of it that night, I was immediately in the presence of my friends and our discussion of the poem’s perfections. Of course, the emotional power simmered under the words and we could all feel it and talk about it. It was like a rip current just near enough to feel its drag but not pull us out, a power that could sweep us instantly out to sea if we let ourselves be taken by it. And that is what the poem needs to be fully understood and realized. The force of it requires we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, that open to the inevitable death of those we love. Feeling this fearful reality is part of what the poem means. Without it, it is only half a poem, and we only half comprehend it. To read it aright is to be absolutely exposed to the worst pain we are likely ever to feel.

 

 

I think of all the human emotions that call for the gravitas of form, loss, grief, and outrage need it most. In the case of Paul Celan, the complete break down of syntax and logical priority in his poetry was, chiefly, a formal necessity rooted in the murder of his people. He was writing in the language of the murderer, and, like the conquered Irish, and the enslaved African, this formal necessity compelled him toward re-inventing German, “mangling” it as it were, in order to achieve a true poetics of witness. What cannot be born must ever more carefully be shaped.

The handling of such overwhelming material is first and last, a question of form. Grief, loss, outrage, must be made portable. They must have their ceremony: embodiment, purgation, and, if possible, catharsis, and it is important to instill in a young poet the sense that precision, finding the right ceremony of utterance for what can not be truly expressed is paramount: the harder, the more impossible it is to render the fulll scope of loss, or grief, or outrage, the more vital form becomes. Here, I mean form as an artificiality which allows for truth. The only weapon at my disposal in the wake of all my losses and humiliations is artifice. Only the “insincerity” of form can speak for my heart. The great polyglot, Fernando Pessoa writes in his Book of Disquiet:

The most abject of all needs is to confide, to confess. It’s the soul’s need to externalize.

Go ahead and confess, but confess what you don’t feel. Go ahead and tell your secrets to get their weight off your soul, but let the secrets you tell be secrets you’ve never had.

Lie to yourself before you tell that truth. Expressing yourself is always a mistake. Be resolutely conscious: let expression, for you, be synonymous with lying.

All poets must play not with the difference between truth and lie, but with their intimacy, the way one draws forth the other. As an experiment, I have been putting all my most immediate and sincere thoughts in Facebook status updates. These have made “positive” thinkers of the most depressed poet/friends, all of whom dread my declarations that a life without the beloved is meaningless, and, yet, if I were to put the lie of form, of decoration, of verbal ceremony to these “expressions” I might do more than merely get away with them; I might be applauded. It is never the “truth” that gives a poem its value, but the ceremony of that truth, and all ceremonies are, by definition, artificial.

So let me give a young poet a couple ways “in.” The first is that most conceited of poetic conceits: apostrophic (elegiac) address. Apostrophic address is the poet speaking directly to that missing person, place, or thing, which, of course, can not speak back. It has the power of immediacy, of ancient rites of grief and drama, and yes, of madness. In many classical elegies, it does not occur until the poem reaches its climax. Suddenly, the poet, in the throes of grief or grandeur, turns toward the dead,or the absent, and speaks to him or her directly. I will use the opening four stanzas of one of my favorite Spanish poets, Miguel Hernandez’ poem, “Lullaby of The Onion.” It was inspired by his hearing while dying in one of Franco’s prisons that his wife and son had nothing to live on but bread and onions:

An onion is frost
shut in and poor.
Frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion,
black ice and frost
huge and round.

My son is lying now
in the cradle of hunger.
The blood of an onion
is what he lives on.
But it is your blood,
with sugar on it like frost,
onion and hunger.

A dark woman
turned into moonlight
pours herself down thread
by thread over your cradle.
My son, laugh,
because you can swallow the moon
when you want to.

Lark of my house,
laugh often.
Your laugh is in your eyes
the light of the world.
Laugh so much
that my soul, hearing you,
will beat wildly in space.

Hernandez is lying to his son, to himself, but the important truth– this great poet, this loving father, locked away to die in a prison, who is helpless in every way except for his love, comes out. What a bad poem it would be if he wrote:

My son and wife have nothing but bread and onions to eat,
and I am helpless in all ways except my love.

This is what I mean by the necessity of form–whether in rhyme, or meter, or free verse. Pessoa says at a different point in his book that the personal is not the human. Always, a poem is a translation from the personal to the human that almost succeeds. The residue of its best failures is beauty. One must speak for more than just one’s self, even when the self is all one knows, or one does not speak at all. And so on to another trick:

Another way to create gravitas is distancing from the emotion either by sticking to surface details or by an indirect rumination, in order to free the ontology of the poem (its essential being) from the fetters of the merely personal (see Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”). O’Hara uses the form of causal this and that. He goes here, he goes there, Billy Holiday has died. His strategy is an indirectness so accute it makes the loss part of the daily doings and landscape of his life and ours. Elizabeth Bishop uses irony and a sort of stoic rumination on loss done in one of the most strict forms: the Villanelle. This distancing does not have the passion of Hernandez, but it gives the loss and grief a certain elan and dignity.

Here’s an exercise: read all three of these poems, consider a grief, a loss, an outrage in your life, and write on it in all three styles. Use a conceit such as apostrophic address or giving the one you love a name like “Lark of my house” (or, as in Roethke’s great Elegy, “skittery pigeon”). First practice speaking directly to the absent person, place or thing, then write all around it without mentioning it explicitly. Good luck.