“I knew all along you were mine”
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, February 3rd 2012. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, Say It With A Poem. I love you. Yes, that phrase is overused to the point of banality. But it is still one of the most necessary expressions in the language. You simply can’t get through life without deploying it. And it works hard for us. I love you; it’s the password into sexual experience. I love you; it’s the ritualized code of reassurance between married people. I love you; we say it, we mean it, but there’s only so much feeling that three little words can carry. They’re necessary, but not sufficient. Enter, poetry. This is important, because Valentine’s day is fast approaching, and we at The Poetry Foundation are concerned that you might not be prepared. You need to back up your “I love you”s with some linguistic muscle, with a poem that will bring some complexity and depth into your declaration. Joining me from The Poetry Foundation in Chicago is Cathy Halley, the web editor of poetryfoundation.org. Now Cathy, there are thousands of poems on poetryfoundation.org. How are people going to find a love poem that would be appropriate for their situation.
Cathy Halley: There’s a couple of different ways that you can do it. One way is to go to poetryfoundation.org/lovepoems, and that would give you a curated list of some poems that are good for Valentine’s day. They’re arranged by categories like romantic love poems, classic love poems, that kind of thing. That’s helpful. There’s one other way you could do it and find those kinds of categories with even more poems. That would be to go to the poems in “Browse Poems” section of the cite. We have love poems for every situation.
Curtis Fox: Every situation.
Cathy Halley: Break ups, unrequited love, complicated love, messy love. There’s a lot of poems that are classified as funny love poems. And there’s also really raunchy love poems on the cite too, poems that will make you blush. We have an article called “Poems That Will Make You Blush”.
Curtis Fox: Let me ask you what may be a too personal question for our conversation. Have you yourself ever deployed poetry in a romantic adventure.
Cathy Halley: A romantic adventure? I’m not sure what you mean by a romantic adventure.
Curtis Fox: A romantic relationship, let’s just put it that way.
Cathy Halley: I have, in fact. Some of my favorite poems from the cite I have found either in our poetry app, our mobile app, I’ve found them by accident by shaking the phone and finding a category within the love category, I’ve found poems that I then sent to my current boyfriend via email. So I guess that’s a romantic adventure, isn’t it?
Curtis Fox: How’d it go over.
Cathy Halley: Very well, I think. One of them he sort of thought I was crazy. He said, this poem has someone who’s a fireball destroying somebody else. Why are you sending me this poem?
Curtis Fox: So you’ve chosen a few poems from the archive. What do you want to read first.
Cathy Halley: I’ll read the poem “Yours & Mine” by Alice Fulton.
Curtis Fox: Before we hear it, tell us a little bit about the poem.
Cathy Halley: This poem was written in the 1980s, or was published in the 1980s. The thing I like about this poem is it captures the distance that sometimes exist between lovers.
Curtis Fox: It’s also a poem about taking photographs, two people taking photographs in very different ways. So go ahead and give it a read.
Cathy Halley: Through your lens the sequoia swallowed me
like a dryad. The camera flashed & forgot.
I, on the other hand, must practice my absent-
mindedness, memory being awkward as a touch
that goes unloved. Lately your eyes have shut
down to a shade more durable than skin’s. I know you
love distance, how it smooths. You choose an aerial view,
the city angled to abstraction, while I go for the close
exposures: poorly-mounted countenances along Broadway,
the pigweed cracking each hardscrabble backlot.
It’s a matter of perspective: yours is to love me
from a block away & mine is to praise the grain-
iness that weaves expressively: your face.
Curtis Fox: So that was “Yours & Mine” by Alice Fulton. It’s very moving at the end, how the different ways of loving are very apparent. It’s not very flattering to the man though, I have to say. He loves her from a distance, and she loves him close up.
Cathy Halley: Yes, but I think there’s something at the end. She’s coming to a resignation of their different ways of loving. Of course I’m assuming here … We’re making an assumption that it’s a man she’s talking about. We don’t know.
Curtis Fox: That’s always a problem. She’s a female poet so we think it’s a female speaker and she’s speaking to somebody and we assume it’s a man. But a lover, I think it’s safe to say. There’s a very haunting line, “Lately your eyes have shut / down to a shade more durable than skin’s”. I think there’s nothing worse to a lover than not being seen by one’s beloved.
Cathy Halley: Nothing worse. Don’t people fall in love through their eyes, isn’t that the tradition?
Curtis Fox: Yeah. So there’s some danger hinted at in this poem. She says “You choose an aerial view, the city angled to abstraction”. That doesn’t sound so promising.
Cathy Halley: No, there’s a way in which the way he takes pictures is as an artist in some ways. He’s interested in the landscape, he’s interested in the aerial view of the cities, an abstraction. She’s also interested in abstraction and her photographs are also abstract, but they start with a human face. Things become abstract because she’s brought them so close.
Curtis Fox: Let’s go to another poem. This one you’ve chosen is by E.E. Cummings, it’s called “love is more thicker than forget”. Why’d you choose this one?
Cathy Halley: I chose this one because this summer, I was going to a wedding. Of course a lot of people are looking for poems for weddings, love poems. I was sending, it felt like thousands, but hundreds of poems to one of my best friends. This is the poem she ended up choosing. I don’t think anybody really understood it, but the mystery of it … I think it captures the paradox of love very well.
Curtis Fox: I just listened to it. We have a recording of E.E. Cummings reading it. I was mystified it a bit myself, although charmed by it at the same time. Let’s listen to it. Here’s E.E. Cummings reading “love is more thicker than forget”.
E.E. Cummings: love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail
it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea
love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive
it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky
Curtis Fox: That was E.E. Cummings reading “love is more thicker than forget”. It’s so funny to hear E.E. Cummings reading, because he sounds so waspy.
Cathy Halley: He sure does.
Curtis Fox: Doesn’t he? And kind of severe. So it’s a jumble of stuff he throws into one poem, which I guess is not unlike the jumble of things that go into loving somebody, right?
Cathy Halley: It is more and less a jumble of things. I like the oppositions.
E.E. Cummings: … It is most mad and moonly
Cathy Halley: He says “most mad” which is interesting, but it’s written in the text as “it is more mad and moonly”. And then later,
E.E. Cummings: … It is most sane and sunly
Cathy Halley: So you have all these oppositions. What I love about that is the way that you love and hate someone at the same time.
Curtis Fox: It’s never pure is it?
Cathy Halley: No.
Curtis Fox: (LAUGHING) We’re both old enough to know that. It’s never totally pure. He does capture all the contradictions, or some of the contradictions in such a power feeling. How did this poem go over at the wedding?
Cathy Halley: People loved it. They really did. People kept coming up to me and saying, I have no idea what that poem means but I love it. I think the sound of the words is very beautiful. There’s a lot of alliteration in here, there’s the near rhyme, people really like that. I think they also have that sense of …. love can be so capacious in some ways, and you’ve got words that are really extreme ways here.
E.E. Cummings: … and more it cannot die / than all the sky which only / is higher than the sky
Cathy Halley: It’s huge, it’s infinite really. I think people really responded well to that. That sense of melodrama, really.
Curtis Fox: Okay, you have one more poem. This one you’re going to read. This is a poem I was totally unfamiliar with. It’s called “Poem to an Unnameable Man” by Dorothea Lasky. What can you tell us about this poem to help us prepare for it?
Cathy Halley: You just have to surrender to it. You’ll see, as the poem is about surrender in some ways, and about the cower of love.
Curtis Fox: Okay, go ahead and read it. Here’s “Poem to an Unnameable Man” by Dorothea Lasky.
Cathy Halley: You have changed me already. I am a fireball
That is hurtling towards the sky to where you are
You can choose not to look up but I am a giant orange ball
That is throwing sparks upon your face
Oh look at them shake
Upon you like a great planet that has been murdered by change
O too this is so dramatic this shaking
Of my great planet that is bigger than you thought it would be
So you ran and hid
Under a large tree. She was graceful, I think
That tree although soon she will wither
Into ten black snakes upon your throat
And when she does I will be wandering as I always am
A graceful lady that is part museum
Of the voices of the universe everyone else forgets
I will hold your voice in a little box
And when you come upon me I won’t look back at you
You will feel a hand upon your heart while I place your voice back
Into the heart from where it came from
And I will not cry also
Although you will expect me to
I was wiser too than you had expected
For I knew all along you were mine
Curtis Fox: Woah. That is “Poem to an Unnameable Man” by Dorothea Lasky. That is a poem of romantic exaggeration.
Cathy Halley: I love this incendiary ball. A giant orange ball, she’s this huge planet.
(Curtis Fox: LAUGHING) I am in love with you and you better look out, is what it’s saying, right?
Cathy Halley: Exactly. I think it’s so epic. This image of the Medusa figure. This overpowering female passion (LAUGHING).
Curtis Fox: Get out of my way! (LAUGHING)
Cathy Halley: Right. It silences the beloved, but then it gives it it’s voice back.
Curtis Fox: It destroys him and then reassembles him, and puts his voice back into place. It’s really something.
Cathy Halley: It’s funny, this is a poem I found by accident in our poetry, our mobile app. And I sent it to my boyfriend via email. And he wrote back and all he said was “Wow”.
Curtis Fox: Is that right? Yeah, I wouldn’t know what to make of getting a poem like that. I guess it would be a love poem, but I would think, my god I’m owned.
Cathy Halley: Well, yes. But don’t we all sort of want to be possessed?
Curtis Fox: I guess so, wow. So did he see the subtleties of it eventually? How did you explain this poem to him?
Cathy Halley: He made some joke about the tree that he was hiding under.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING). Why is the tree female?
Cathy Halley: I have no idea. But that tree makes me think of Avatar, the film. And that big tree of life, that life force that everybody goes to.
Curtis Fox: This is also kind of a poem that celebrates sort of an aggressive all consuming love, and it offers no apologies for itself whatsoever.
Cathy Halley: I wonder what this poem would be like if it were written by a man. I think it would not be the same sort of poem. There’s something sort of defiant at the end, this sense of I will put your voice back, “But I will not cry, although you expect me to”. You expect a kind of weakness, you expect this from me, but I’m going to be strong. I love that defiance there. And also that sense of expectation. Or not expectation, but the speaker is saying, I knew you belonged to me. That sense of confidence, approaching someone with that kind of confidence … You know when you look in someone’s eyes and you can tell they love you, and you have that sense of confidence that they return your feelings. There’s nothing more wonderful than that.
Curtis Fox: Okay, thanks Cathy.
Cathy Halley: Thank you, happy Valentine’s Day!
Curtis Fox: Yeah, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, it’s February 14th, so you better get to poetryfoundation.org where you can find dozens if not hundreds if not thousands of love poems. Just type “love poems” into the search bar, or you can go to poetryfoundation.org/lovepoems. Let us know what you think of this program, where our motto is …
E.E. Cummings: less never than alive
Curtis Fox: Email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.