How do we make sense of the world? How do we understand the swirling emotions of the millions of people all around us, the confusion of motivations, desires, fears, and impulses that guide our daily lives? How do we put a harness on the wielding thoughts and sensations that bloom with new romance? When we see beauty, we take a picture; we have captured a moment of time. Poetry is a photograph of emotion, a still, silent image of the ineffable. It’s why, for thousands of years, people have used it to understand the most inexpressible of emotions: love.
It can be easy to dismiss poetry. After all, we are awash in words, from our social network feeds to the endless din of our media: movies, games, music, and shows at the miraculous touch of a button. We also might resent the idea that we need someone else to try to guide us through our emotions. After all, no one can ever truly be in our heads, and our internal monologue is a solitary soliloquy.
But the best poetry reaches down through the ages and helps us make sense of our emotions. It helps to guide us toward an understanding of ourselves, and maybe more importantly, an understanding of other people. When someone can put into words the inchoate emotions that people feel, it fosters compassion, sympathy, and most important, empathy. Poetry helps us walk in other people’s shoes, while at the same time, fully fitting into our own. It helps us take hold of love.
Understanding a Relationship’s Beginning
If there is one thing that people associate with poetry, it is the beginning of a relationship, that butterfly-stomached, finger-fluttering first touch, the bloom of something radiant under an orangish moon. Take for example She Walks in Beauty, by Lord Byron:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
Byron perfectly captures that flush of excitement upon seeing someone you love. You don’t recognize flaws and your heart leaps at the sight of them. It’s an exciting time. Your lover is not a poem, though. They don’t live in one, and you must recognize that things won’t always be as exciting and great as they are in that first flush. However, you should take care always to remember the poetry days. Because no matter what, that initial spark will be there. So when you find a poem that fits, remember to live it.
On the flip side of that, of course, is unrequited love. You might fall hard for someone, and desperately want them to see you romantically, to be your partner, and to understand everything good about you. When they don’t, it can easily curdle into resentment. After all, if they don’t recognize you, then there must be something wrong with them—something cruel. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 139 summarizes this emotion in its cruel protestations of cruelty. (O call not me to justify the wrong/that thy unkindness lays upon my heart). The poet says, “Her pretty looks have been mine enemies,” as if the woman in question owes something to the lover. It robs the other person of individuality and choice. A better remedy is Afaa Weaver’s “Evening Lounge,” in which, after many lines bemoaning loneliness and a spurning, understands that the object of his love and lust is another human:
Afraid of what to say should she say yes and this decade
Of my monkish life should lie open and I have to say why
I am sitting on the edge of the bed, why I have woke her from
The sweet smile I assume she has when I assume her horror
Is smaller than mine.
Love as Endless Excitement
Love, of course, morphs into middle age and comfortableness, even for the mooniest and moodiest teens. This is not a bad thing. The problem is that people sometimes assume that a lack of fire means a lack of excitement. This doesn’t have to be the case. Your partner can be someone you love forever, even if you sometimes spend most of Friday deciding what to watch on Netflix. That doesn’t mean the initial spark isn’t still there, like an eternal flame. After all, as Rumi, the great Sufi mystic, said of his lover, Shams al-Tabriz:
When I am with you, we stay up all night
When you are not here, I can’t go to sleep
Praise God for these two insomnias!
And the difference between them
Rumi and Shams were lovers (mostly forbidden) for decades, and yet Rumi wrote some of the most ecstatic love poetry of all time about Shams because he didn’t let decades of sand and oppression cover a spark. We can learn from this. The obligations of everyday life with your partner—bills, in-laws, having to see his friends (even though you saw them last week)—doesn’t have to extinguish a flame. If there is a true infrastructure of love, the house can last.
Of course, it doesn’t always last. Some relationships burn out in a month, or a few years, or sadly after a long time. We are human, and we fall. The end of a relationship isn’t a failure, though. It is part of life.
Being able to let go is the flip side of love. Love is predicated on understanding a person for who they are, which is the basis of true poetry. It’s about being able to look at someone as a true person, independent from you, with their own life. That’s what we always fail to do when a relationship ends. We think, understandably, in the pain and loss and self-doubt that comes with the end, that we have had something done to us. But it is really just that two people parted ways, as two people almost always must. The reasons may be hard, and the fallout cruel, but in the end, that’s what it comes down to—empathy. That longing will be there, but it can be somewhat sweet as Emily Dickinson reminds us:
Heart, we will forget him,
You and I, tonight!
You must forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.
When you have done, pray tell me,
Then I, my thoughts, will dim;
Haste! lest while you’re lagging
I may remember him!
Poetry is a form of spiritual communication with the world, with nature, with each other, and finally, with our inner selves. It remains the language of love because it distills the sad, sweet, warm, explosive emotions that make up our lives. Nowhere are these emotions stronger than when it comes to love, and so nowhere is poetry more important. It is beauty, and it reminds us that even the sometimes-vicious nature of love can be a kind of beauty, because it is truly and vitally alive, and we, as human, get to have these outsized emotions. It is a curse sometimes, but more often a gift. And as Keats reminds us, this beauty can last forever.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
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