Poetry News

Sing Along: Sandra Simonds at Boston Review

By Harriet Staff

They're killin' it! Sandra Simonds waxes quite poetically, at Boston Review.

One night last July, the Tallahassee air full of the smell of semi-tropical rain and azaleas, drinking my third glass of a heavy red wine and listening to YouTube videos one after another on my laptop, I was thinking about a silly little love affair from the past that didn’t work out.

As the night went on and I got a little drunk, I tried to find a song on YouTube to “match” the odd pleasure I had taken in the game-like quality of the affair. I searched and searched and then bingo—Lady Gaga’s “Love Games.”

I clicked. I watched. I felt better. In the song, love is conceived as a challenge: impossible, exhilarating, and frustrating, but overall, a game. Gaga doesn’t seem too bothered that men want to “play a love game / a love game.” She asks, “You want to play a love game? . . . Bring it on.” At the same time, watching the video and listening to the song, I didn’t get the feeling it was a game she invented.

If Gaga had lived in twelfth century France, she might have been a trobairitz, or female troubadour. Pop music, as a whole, is a contemporary genre that mirrors many aspects of troubadour poetry, which flourished in Southern Italy and France in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The troubadours wrote different types of songs—satires, pastorals, dance songs, debate songs—but they are best known for creating and solidifying codes of heterosexual love, and passing those codes down through history in poetry.

It is thanks to the troubadours that we have Gaga’s “Love Games,” and it is thanks to Gaga that I turned off YouTube that night and went to my bookshelf and read straight through an anthology called Lyrics of the Middle Ages,edited by James J. Wilhelm. I got it at a library book sale and it had been sitting in the trunk of my car, and then unread on my bookshelf for years. When I finally sat down and read through these medieval poets—Marcabru, Countess of Dia, Arnaut Daniel—I realized that unlike most of the writing from the Middle Ages, these love songs can be secular and vulgar. Often, the troubadours are not praising Jesus in their songs—they are baptizing dildos.

While the troubadours are known for their romantic attitudes, some poems reveal disturbing aggression towards women.

Despite the intriguing nature of the poems’ secularity, I also couldn’t help but notice the darkness of male heterosexual desire replayed over and over in some of these poems. While the troubadours are known for their romantic attitudes, some poems reveal disturbing aggression towards women and often the poems contain vulgar puns made at the expense of women. Here’s a stanza from a poem in the anthology called “Now I see brown, dark, troubled heavens” by Raimbaut of Orange (c. 1147–1173):

My verse is now completely leashed up
and I’d like to see it carried secure
to my Demon-Girl, may it make her grim!

In the Raimbaut of Orange poem I have translated below, I set out to capture this more ominous side—the madness of the psychology of the frustrated male lover. The poets best known for translating the troubadours (Ezra Pound and Paul Blackburn immediately come to mind) have been men. I wondered, as I read through the poems, if a woman translating the poems might see this male aggression more clearly. [...]

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