Jeanette Winterson on Love, Past and Present

The world is so lucky to have the wonderful and wise Jeanette Winterson. In her latest piece for the Guardian, she explores the ways in which we remember past love relationships, and how these ways affect the present. With one of her classic, brilliant hooks, she begins with, “Nostalgia for lost love is cowardice disguised as poetry.”

It’s not that we shouldn’t have fond memories of past loves, or even regrets, she says.

But recognising the past as our past, and being able to groan, giggle, blush, sigh and play with those memories, is not the same as a corrosive secret infatuation with the idea of that special someone we managed to mislay. Sighing over a fantasy drains energy from reality. What happens in our heads isn’t private; it is unspoken, that’s all. We all know what it’s like to live in the stifling atmosphere of what is unsaid.

She goes on to discuss the hard work that real love demands and how she finally realized that she was running the same story through all her relationships. But the line that stays with me is the one that unveils the myth of privacy: What happens in our heads isn’t private, simply unspoken. How true, and how easy to convince oneself otherwise.

Winterson concludes by inviting readers to share their stories of lost love. For details, read the full piece here.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: Impediment Removed

Have you ever read something for years and felt like you never quite got it and then one day it finally clicked? This has happened to me with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. It’s the one that insists on love as constant and (by implication) true lovers as faithful until the “edge of doom”:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The meaning is clear enough, but I’ve always felt a little cool toward this poem, admiring its virtuosity but not really loving it for some reason. The language has always seemed a bit oddly formal compared to many of the other sonnets, with their precise but colloquial language. Like those brilliant lines in Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun): “I grant I never saw a goddess go – / My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.”

The other thing is that this sonnet doesn’t seem to be addressing anyone in particular, unlike so many others in its group, the first 126 sonnets dedicated to the young man. By comparison, this poem can read like a boring and not especially convincing PSA. Thank you mom for telling me about true love. Can I have the car keys now?

But 116 comes alive if we read it not as a declaration but as a rebuttal, as the lover talking directly back to the young man, despite the lack of obvious direct address. A few clues invite this reading: The sonnet comes toward the end of those addressed to the young man; many of these later poems, especially 87-90, but others too, chronicle the failure of a love relationship. The young man has evidently moved on to greener pastures.

The poem is also full of “not,” “no,” and “never” (lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 14), a hint that the lover is not just making some noble claim about true love; he is arguing against something and responding to someone.

What’s the situation and the argument he rejects? The language of 116 suggests it is something like this: In the process of dumping him, the young man claims, “Things have changed (altered)… I need space…new impediments have arisen.” All the dull standbys when somebody is lame and just wants out.

The lover savagely calls him on it. Well, you can run that crap if you want, but “let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” You can say things have changed, but I say that true love is an “ever-fixed mark.” Love is not this; it is that; x, y, and z don’t matter; what matters is faith and constancy.

The lover also implies that the real issue is the young man’s superficial attachment to beauty, and he attacks this by saying love is stronger than the passing of time and the rosy lips and cheeks that time will eventually ravage.

The idea of a rebuttal makes this poem comprehensible, and makes perfect sense coming from Shakespeare the playwright. And I love this reading, which I learned from Stephen Burt’s and David Mikics’s The Art of the Sonnet and Helen Vendler’s classic, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, because it reminds us not only of what good poetry is but what it does.

The best lyric engages some real person, thing, or situation. It can be a lover, or death, or birth, or something far more ordinary but still profound in its way, like the shock of fresh cream, an afternoon flower, the weird shadow behind the door, the annoying socks you keep having to pick up.

For me, imagining a context for 116 doesn’t just bring the poem to life; it makes it burst into life, reminding us that poetry–all art–is part of life, not some frivolous decoration of it.

Both writing and reading a good poem means there is something at stake. Find it and prosper.




The Marvelous Elizabeth Bishop

Here in the land of western waterfalls snow finally concedes to rain and rain means occasional lightning, which makes me think of my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem.

This poem, “It is marvelous to wake up together,” was not printed during Bishop’s life but was discovered among her personal papers after her death. It’s a love poem, which is somewhat uncharacteristic as Bishop did not typically focus on romantic love in her poetry.

Entirely characteristic, though, is Bishop’s power of vision. In this poem it is both wide and subtle:

It is marvellous to wake up together

At the same minute; marvellous to hear

The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,

To feel the air clear

As if electricity had passed through it

From a black mesh of wires in the sky.

All over the roof the rain hisses,

And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;

It is the prickling air that wakes us up.

If lightning struck the house now, it would run

From the four blue china balls on top

Down the roof and down the rods all around us,

And we imagine dreamily

How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning

Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view

Of night and lying flat on one’s back

All things might change equally easily,

Since always to warn us there must be these black

Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise

The world might change to something quite different,

As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,

Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

The beauty here is stunning: intimate yet unsentimental thanks to Bishop’s ingenious style, her serenity, the controlled elegant lines, her judicious use of rhyme.

The coupling of erotic and atmospheric electricity is an obvious choice but Bishop makes it work through her brilliant power of observation. Avoiding the trap of clichéd metaphor, she does not liken human eros to lightning but goes the reverse route, beginning with the larger world and imagining a literal storm that both shares its heat with the lovers and contrasts the force of hissing rain with the “light falling of kisses.”

And the image of the house as a “bird-cage of lightning” in the second stanza becomes a rich symbol of the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of love: intimate and prone to ensnare.

But the third stanza is what moves things to a higher level of subtlety, to something beyond a simple love lyric in the hands of a masterful technician.

The idea is that change comes as easily as a lightning storm that delights rather than worries – delights because it’s dark and the speaker is in bed with her lover. With its hints of motion and progress, this joining of eros and change seems hopeful, perhaps a quintessentially American hope, nourished most obviously by the poetic legacy of Walt Whitman. Bishop’s lines in fact recall “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” when Whitman writes of a meeting with a lover in the dark near water in motion:

And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll

slowly continually up the shores,

I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed

to me whispering to congratulate me,

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same

cover in the cool night,

In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face

inclined toward me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I

was happy.

Interestingly though, Bishop mentions neither happiness nor progress but the more neutral “change,” which could be benevolent, yet there are subtle hints of foreboding: the electrical wires dangling are always there, but they are there to warn of impending change, not to celebrate it. What is this vague “something quite different” the world might become?

I believe the poem deliberately leaves this question unanswered because it wants us to imagine things fortunate and ominous. It allows us the electrified pleasure of eros and the dark house charged with light for just a moment. It wants us to take innocent pleasure in the lovers’ changing kisses, and it wants us to consider that the wires might destroy rather than enchant.

And it wants us to remember that this belief in easy change is rooted in the “simplified point of view” nurtured by darkness, by the vulnerability of sleep, of sudden waking, of love.

And maybe that’s the poem’s genius and its subtlety. These words, deeply generous and not at all naïve, might be telling us something about the inevitable force of a simplified perspective, the force of experience both limited and overwhelming to shape our larger perceptions of things.

Marvelous indeed, and a fitting last gift from one of the world’s best twentieth century poets.