Call it Laura Syndrome. Probably a common enough condition among poets, especially when they’re very young. It’s one of the things that gives such particular ardor and keenness of emotion to lyric poetry, especially romantic or erotic lyric poetry.
I’ll be talking about the poet as a strictly male figure here, just so you know. Not that I’m not well aware that there are many, many women who have written poetry of the first (or nearly the first) rank — Millay comes to mind. I’m just focusing on the male side of things because I most certainly don’t have any particular insight into the morphology and development of female writers. Granted, granted, I’m not at all agreeing with Nietzsche that women who are artistically or intellectually inclined are spiritual lesbians. Wouldn’t want you to go thinking that. I’m just sticking to the masculine end of things because I’d hate to project my one-sided view of feminine experience and yadda yadda yadda, you get the point.
Anyway. Laura Syndrome. Petrarch, Italian poet of the early Renaissance. Meets, or rather encounters Laura — in a church, I believe, because it’s the Italian Renaissance so where else are people gonna meet each other? But Laura’s married or maybe engaged or something, Petrarch falls in love, but it’s all like “doomed love we’ll never be together” kind of thing.
And anyway, Petrarch’s a poet. Or at least he’s a poet with what I’m calling the Laura Syndrome. If he’s gonna be in love, he’d rather it be with some unattainable woman he can idealize the shit out of and work himself into a passion over, without all that nastiness of — you know, genuine emotional and physical proximity to another human being.
Sort of like, imagine a stalker. But then imagine that the stalker is much more interested in writing about what he thinks you might maybe possibly be doing than in actually doing stalker shit.
Okay, that’s a bit too harsh. But back to Petrarch. He spends the rest of his life writing a big fat stack of love poems (mostly sonnets) that are all supposedly inspired by Laura, even if they don’t happen to actually be about her. Three hundred some-odd of em. I got em in a book on my shelf.
So why Laura? Why not just write poems for somebody he could actually get somewhere with?
Well, as any man who has even the slightest experience with women knows, there’s no quicker way to turn a woman off than writing love poetry about her. Even if it’s absolutely exquisite stuff, it just doesn’t work that way.
But Petrarch’s a poet, and he’s gotta practice his art somehow. And a poet who isn’t in love is like a Major League Baseball player who isn’t doped up on steroids. It just doesn’t work. So why not just marry a woman and write poetry for her after the fact — I mean, I’m not a hundred percent up to speed on marriage laws in fourteenth-century Italy, but that can’t have been too hard to arrange, could it?
No go, Joe Schmoe. Because as Byron put it so perfectly:
Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife
He would have written sonnets all his life?
That’s a negative, chief. Because when you’re writing love poetry you’re not really writing it for the woman you’re writing it for. Not by a long shot. When you’re writing love poetry you’re writing it for the ideal of femininity you have in your head, which you catch a glimpse of through the woman you’re ostensibly actually writing it for. Even if you have the happiest of all possible marriages, you’re not going to be able to find that ideal through a woman you see every day. Not after you’ve seen her in the morning before she puts her makeup on and had to remind her to shut the bathroom door while she’s using it.
So really what Petrarch’s doing when he’s falling in love with Laura is intuitively solving one of the very real problems in the way of really great poetry. Ya gotsta be in love if you’re gonna write poetry, but if the woman you fall in love with is in any way attainable you’re eventually gonna be disillusioned and… ya know, all that nastiness that comes from actually falling in and out of love with somebody.
This is about art, anyway. Much more important than love. Love is just one of the ingredients you need. Like a dictionary, or a pencil.
Now this is the part where people will start saying lyric poetry is “inherently narcissistic” or “expressive of an unwillingness to accept reality” or “really just a lot of navel-gazing about how nice it would be if things were nice.” And that’s all true, of course, but it’s also really pretty and that should count for something.
I know I’ve been flippant up to this point. But once the subject of beauty comes up I don’t have it in me to be flippant. Because beauty means something, and passion means something, and poetry means something. And if today I’m approaching this topic in an ironic and jokey way, more than likely what’s really going on is that I’m mapping the territory. Giving myself leeway to get some things very wrong so I can get the general outlines right.
Because there’s no way I’m not coming back to this topic. You know how it is. I’m writing about Petrarch here, but I’m not really writing about Petrarch, I’m writing about the guy who’s sitting in my chair typing this right now. I’m reflecting on some past experiences that led to the most fruitful period of poetry writing in my life.
Something I’m still too embarrassed to talk about directly. But what I’m doing here is trying to formulate what happened in a way that makes sense and will let me tell the story at a later date. Or, who knows? Maybe one of these days I’ll try to recreate the conditions and have another go at writing love poetry for an unattainable ideal.
Unlikely, but it’s fun to think about.