Today is my birthday. It's also the day I've decided to start this project, a month of reading one poem per day and blogging about it. When I was in college I loved poetry, and I devoured it with the boundless enthusiasm of a student. But since leaving school I've been more interested in fiction, in plot, in stories (there's a post marinating somewhere about why that is). I no longer seem to have the attention span for meditating on a single word or a single line, for letting an image sink slowly into my skin, for enjoying words just because of their sound and shape. There are things you can do with words besides tell a story, and that's what I want to think about.
So. Litany (Billy Collins). I wanted to start with this because it's one of my favorites (it's one of everybody's favorites, I know, but I'm not necessarily aiming for obscure on this blog). It was read at my wedding. It's funny, and it's about love, and it's meta. Which is pretty much the trifecta of how to make me love something.
I should talk first about the meta part. Litany is a love poem, yes, but it's also a poem about love poems. It's about how we (the authors of poetry) create romance in a metaphor just by placing it in the setting of a romantic poem, and how we (the audience) accept that, even when the metaphor gets quite implausible. When I think about "the wind in the orchard," that seems romantic to me. But, "the pigeon on the general's head"? No way. And yet reading Litany makes me think that there could be a poem that would make it romantic. There is, in the platonic universe of poetry, a poem in which that line is romantic.
Language is about context. You can make almost any set of words have meaning, have a particular meaning even, if you set them within the appropriate context. You can make words mean their opposite. You can make seemingly nonsense words into a meaningful sentence. Once you have established the setting for a sentence, if you do it right, you can say almost anything.
Sometimes I play a little game with myself, where I come up with a strange sentence or image or situation and then I have to figure out a way to make it make sense. It's a great technique for writing stories, because it forces you to work logically, but it also gives you something really entertaining that you're working towards. You start with your bizarre thing and work backwards - how would this person get into that situation? What would make them say this sentence? And when you figure out how to make the story successfully build up to that moment it's really satisfying. It's like you've conquered something, you've bent this idea to your whims.
The other thing I wanted to talk about was the funny part. It's not just that the poem is funny. It's-- okay, back up. Before I talk about humor, I have to talk about earnestness.
Earnestness is a difficult thing, both from the giving and from the receiving end. It's vulnerability. From the giving end - when you are sincere about a feeling and you show that sincerity, you are giving someone a weapon which can be used against you. Sometimes that's okay, because you trust the person, because you're trying to make a point, because it's necessary to be earnest in order to accomplish what you need done. Sometimes choosing to be vulnerable is symbolic; it demonstrates that you trust the person you're talking to, and it's more about the act of being earnest than what you're actually earnest about.
From the receiving end - when someone makes themselves vulnerable to you, there is a responsibility that comes with that. You have the responsibility to treat their belief with respect. You have the responsibility to not mock or humiliate them, even if you think their belief is ridiculous, even if you think it's ridiculous and dangerous. Imagine there's something you might normally say, "oh, that's woo-woo bullshit" about. Now imagine someone has told you, seriously and intently and earnestly, that they really believe it, that it has helped them when nothing else did. Your whole way of responding has to change. If you're like me, you feel vicariously vulnerable on the other person's behalf - you think "Good god, why are you telling me this? It's too personal! It's too much! You should protect yourself!" Even if you're not as prone to vicarious embarrassment an I am, you probably at least feel a bit burdened by that sort of disclosure, like "We were getting along fine, and then she had to go and tell me something like that!"
One way to ease the burden on both parties in this sort of transaction is via humor. Humor lets you take a step back from something you care deeply about, but still lets you say it. When you're talking, humor lets the person you're talking to know that they don't have to meet your statement with equal seriousness or risk being thought (either by other people or by themselves) as a thoughtless asshole. And it gives you (the speaker) a bit of protection so that if someone does start being an asshole, then they're the one who's taken things to the wrong level, not you.
To bring this back to Litany - I think love is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. When you love someone, it is in essence an earnest thing. Loving someone means owning up to having that soft underbelly that we all have. But precisely because love is so powerful and so personal, I think that makes it very difficult to talk about in a way that sounds sincere and that doesn't make the audience cringe. Alyson and I have a whole language of shared referents - inside jokes, phrases that don't mean anything to anyone else but which, to us, mean "I love you." If I started telling other people about those things they wouldn't make sense, or they'd sound banal and stupid. So in Litany, Collins sort of merges the public and the private sphere, and he does it by using humor. He makes it clear that these metaphors are funny, they're meant to be funny. But they're meant to remind the reader of our own silly love metaphors, to evoke the kinds of things that you end up with in the course of a relationship. The humor allows him to connect with the reader's experience without getting it exactly right - if there was a poem that said the things Alyson and I say to each other, I bet I'd find it a bit weird. With Litany, I know it's meant to imply those things, and I think it works.
[Aside: if you like Litany, you might like this song.]
So I've talked about meta, and I've talked about funny. I don't think I really need to talk about love. Another poem tomorrow.