Wednesday, July 3, 2013

on love poems

Pablo Neruda's love poems are the reverberant croaking of a puffed-up bullfrog. Robert Desnos's love poems are the humble sighing of a butterfly's wings. Neruda's beloved is little more than a cipher for his ego and his love for his own way with words. Desnos's beloved makes him almost disappear into his own shadow.

Pablo is that guy in a bar: "Hey, baby, I'm Neruda, and you sho' lookin' fine tonight." Robert is that other guy, the one sitting quietly at a corner table, looking for all the world like a random character from someone's dream who finds himself inexplicably stranded in the real world. While he slowly sips absinthe, he occasionally glances at the beauty across the room, the one the smooth talkers are gathered around and trying to impress. Our half-real character feels a twinge of silent heartache.

Contrast these poems by Neruda

"If You Forget Me" on and so forth

with this one by Desnos

The Last Poem

I have dreamed of you so much,
Walked so much, talked so much,
Loved so much your shadow,
That there is nothing left for me of you.

I am left to be no more
than a shadow among shadows,
One hundred times
more shadow than shadow,
The shadow that will come again and again
to your sundrenched life.

Robert Desnos was a French surrealist poet. Real surrealism back then was a house of many crazy mirrors. Reality reflected into itself ironically until it became strange. If reality has become dubious, then why not the self, the soul?

In a doomed attempt at not floating off (back into someone's dream?), Desnos fastens a soft cord of words around her -- an ideal and significant being. But as another of his love poems announces, "'re losing your reality," fate is against him. The sensitive surrealist has abstracted not only himself into a space of symbol and nocturne but also the one who is an embodiment of pure quality (the existence of qualities remains a profound philosophical riddle).

It's astounding to me how Desnos's love poems are both confessional heartache and uncanny works of art. There's a certain kind of artistry that, through subtlest saying and written being, manages to avoid the theatrical croaking of a waterlogged amphibian in a top hat.

1900 - 1945


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The poem you cite here is quite beautiful. But just for the record Neruda's poem is an extended metaphor about his relationship with his home country, which he had had to flee. So it's an extended metaphor. It's also in my opinion says a lot about identity. So, if you see it as simply a love poem – you might be missing out on some of the poems deeper levels of funk.

    Look at this line:
    "Well, now,
    if little by little you stop loving me
    I shall stop loving you, little by little."

    That's bizarre, is it not? What kind of love is tit for tat? Yet, it could be read as without *you* loving me, I'm not the person I think I am – and so that person no longer can love you. There's something very strange going on with these lines …

    There are several clues strewn throughout the poem to make it clear he's referring to Chile – and not just some personal lover. Then you've got this weird identity stuff going on … even the images the poems starts with are startlingly plain – which some how make them evocative.

    Anyway, yes, yes, Robert Desnos is also great! Didn't mean to get sidetracked there ...

  3. Oh, then I'm a dunce. I thought Neruda was regarded as the quintessential amorous-erotic poet.

  4. By the way, I linked to poems, not poem. So all nine of those poems are extended metaphors about Chile? And not about a female beloved?

  5. "if little by little you stop loving me
    I shall stop loving you, little by little."

    I didn't read that as tit for tat, but as a mutual and natural falling away between persons.

  6. "So all nine of those poems are extended metaphors about Chile?"

    Only the poem you named, "if you forget me" – but I don't doubt others interesting thing might be implied in the other poems. I'd have to look at them one by one ... when I first encountered an article explaining "if you forget me" was about Chile – I still had trouble seeing it. But reading some more articles, I can see it now.

    I wouldn't have recognized it just reading the poem. It's fascinating that it's considered a famous love poem ... Most of Shakespeare's sonnets were to a man trying to convince him to get married – among those are some famous "love poems" – but they are one man describing another!

    Also, Frosts famous poem about two paths is mostly about how we try to take ambiguous choices and try to remember them as having merit. If the poem is read carefully, each path in the woods was identical. The author just chooses one and then thinks with a wink, ha, I'll tell my grandkids I chose the path less chosen.

    The list here goes on and on ...

  7. I'm not sure why anyone would want to demystify Frost's poem. A work takes on a life of its own, despite the poet's "behind-the-scenes" shenanigans or the critic's self-satisfied deconstruction.

  8. As far as the Frost poem, I think it's very explicit:

    "Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,"

    There's little difference in the choice. This is present tense. The choice is right now. Both paths look equally worn.

    The final stanza then reads:

    "I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference."

    Note, that's future tense at the beginning … Frost is being quite wry here.

    I don't even think this is a demystification of the poem. As far as the Neruda poem, my guess is people who in Chile and contemporary to the publishing of the poem could easily get that he was talking about Chile. I guess. But as time goes on, it loses this meaning – which in some ways is pretty neat. But again here, this isn't a demystification, it's simply explaining the meaning that actually right there in the poem.

  9. For me, it's mostly a moot point with Frost -- I don't care that much for his stuff anyway. I do think though that "explaining the meaning that actually right there in the poem" is not how poetry functions. At least not for me. I don't read a poem to know it's exact meaning. I read a poem for its effect (hopefully, an aesthetic effect). Sure, I'll miss some reality that way, but whatever. :)

    I'll give you that first Neruda poem as being about Chile. But I find it a bit amusing, almost charmingly so, that you would still have to analyze the other eight -- "have to look at them one by one" -- before you would consider my little essay as possibly valid.

    As it is, you seem determined to invalidate it -- to contradict my sense that Neruda's (love) poems are egocentric, while Desnos's are absentric.

  10. "As it is, you seem determined to invalidate it -- to contradict my sense that Neruda's (love) poems are egocentric, while Desnos's are absentric."

    But I've not even said I disagree with that. I'm not at all sure if I do … In any event, animals have moods, so what? We have words, and we are better for them. If you can't get the meaning of the words first, how are to you to capture the author's intended conveyance of feelings.

    I mean, everything comes down to feelings – but words give us nuances of feelings an animal will never feel. The words help us to create the feelings, they are not passive reflectors. So it's important to work at understanding the poems we read.

    What I am saying is a better understanding of the poem heightens the emotional response, and that's a good thing. I didn't like Neruda's "If you forget me" when I first read it, but gradually it's grown on me.

    Robert Desnos is still too new to me to say much about ...

  11. I never meant to suggest that language in a poem is unimportant. Or that a certain amount of sense in a poem is unimportant. I was saying that semantics and concepts are not all that's active in the life of a poem. I see that we agree on that.