Love Poetry:
"The Great Neglected Tradition"
--an interview with Gary Rosenthal
by Mark Rudinsky

 

 

MR: Gary, in an article you wrote as part of a correspondence
with Robert Bly, you touch upon the fact that love poems have become
almost an endangered species in this culture. Why is that?

GR: Well, Bly said it--and I tend to agree. He wrote that love poems are
"hard to come by these days." Many people have commented on this curious
phenomenon, including the poet and critic Dana Gioia who wrote, "love
poetry has become the great neglected tradition."

You ask why this is... but "why" is a funny word, a curious gawker who
might want the simple answer, and here I don't know any, and can only go
into a speculative kind of ramble, and hopefully come up with some likely
suspects...

Perhaps the lack of love poems has something to do with our literary
culture having been a culture of the head versus the heart, for the most
part...and I'm afraid the internet and the 'age of information' is only making
that worse... It's a more mental and masculine kind of logos here, a nation
on the go, a 'can-do' culture, a nation of doers, such that a more feeling based
eros has had a harder time emerging and retaining a foothold in
consciousness than has been the case in some of the slower paced --and
perhaps more heart-friendly-- Southern and Latin cultures, whose languages
are even called 'Romance.'

This is also a nation formed by people who wanted to get away from being
ruled --so we're an unruly nation that values independence and 'rugged
individualism,' a nation with the martial eagle as its national bird, and one of
the few nations on earth that has never been overwhelmed and dominated
by another--and all of this is far away from the kind of vulnerability,
undefendedness, or surrender I associate with love, with 'ecstatic love,' and
the kind of poetry that comes from it

 

MR: And yet I gather that at one time there was a lively tradition of
love poetry happening almost everywhere. If that's true, what was going on
then?

GR: The one great period in which there was an explosion of love poetry
in most European cultures--the 12th to 14th centuries, was also a time when
those cultures--but also those in the Near East-- were all in extremis. It was a
time of religious wars and upheaval, the time of the Crusades, and in the
Near East there were also the Mongol and Tartar invasions in which the
cultures of the great Sufi poets were under siege. Persia was laid to ruin.
Rumi's family had to move to Turkey because of the Mongols invading
present day Afghanistan, and Hafiz was nearly executed by Tamerlaine, saved
only by his presence of mind and ability to say the perfect thing under
questioning...

There's probably something about living in a time when its more obvious
that death could come at any moment, and there's not much security to be
found on the physical plane, that can help turn us in a more spiritual
direction--like that old saying that there's no atheists in foxholes...

There's something about being on the edge...as in facing real danger... that
can instantly knock out the level of the conceptual mind that we're normally
filtering things through. In this way we tend to wake up, become more
aware of our vulnerability and have less denial about impermanence--which
can help intensify one's sense of being alive, contributing to great poetry in
general, and possibly, love poetry in particular. In both love and war, the
stakes are high and people are playing for keeps...so folks don't tend to self-
deaden, or grow heedless to what's going on around and within them...

And there's a significant cultural factor here as well... namely that the
crusades and pilgramage routes brought Europeans into contact with Moorish
and Sufic influences where the bhakti, devotional element hadn't been killed
off.

 

MR: Could you say more about this, about the consequences of what
wasn't killed off in Moorish or Muslim cultures as compared to our own?

GR: In the West we killed off our Gnostics by the 14th Century, the
Albegensian Crusades took care of that. Whereas in Islamic countries
--with some exceptions and periods of repression--the Gnostics, which is
to say the Sufis, were allowed to live. And more than any spiritual culture
I can think of, the Sufis put great value, great emphasis upon the way of the
heart, and its poetry. In fact, more than any other spiritual tradition, many of
the most illustrious teachers and saints are poets. In the 13th and 14th
centuries alone you have Rumi, and Hafiz, and Ibn Arabi, Sanai, Attar, and
Saadi. And so in the Islamic cultures not only are the Gnostics allowed to
live, but poetry, and love poetry in particular, retain a central importance in
the religious tradition.
And the cultural consequences of this can be huge,
far-reaching and long-lasting...

An American poet will often carry a subliminal grief of alienation that
comes from having grown up in a culture where the art he practices and has
made sacrifices for, is continually being marginalized, and for the most part
ignored.

In some part of his soul he will feel like a stranger in his own land. As a
child, if he was read any poetry at all, it was likely Dr. Suess, ie., a benign kind
of doggerel. Whereas by contrast, in modern day Persia, children grow up
having their parents and grandparents read them Hafiz--instead of 'Green
Eggs and Ham.' And so, an American poet would find the level of poetic
fluency in Iran quite astonishing, and perhaps even have a nostalgic kind of
wish to have been born in such a place... where one of the most popular
shows in the history of Iranian television has been a quiz show about poetry!
That whole culture has been attuned to poetry since the tenth century--and
the average Iranian truck driver or barber will know more lines of poetry by
heart than the average North American poet. So the moral of this tale of two
cultures is don't kill off your Gnostics!

 

MR: An amazing contrast. And speaking of contrasts, Gary--with your
Jungian background, how do you see the difference mythologically or
archetypally--between what may have been going on seven centuries ago--
when love poems seemed to be so prevalent--and what we're looking at
now?

GR: There was a lot going on back then that made possible a climate in
which love poems thrived--and then got cut off... I think our culture has lost
the crone aspect of the Great Goddess, the wise old woman, the mature
feminine. This Sophia aspect was basically burnt at the stake at the time of
the Albegensian Crusades, and maybe its no accident that the poetic love
tradition, certainly in the west, went down hill not long after.

You have the French troubadours, and Dante and Petrarch in Italy, and the
Minnesingers in Germany... in the East there's Rumi and Hafiz and Saadi and
Attar and Sanai, as well as the Sufi Sheikh and poet Ibn Arabi, and also Lalla
in Kashmir who was born in 1320, the same year as Hafiz--a year before Dante
died--and all of these folks are writing at about the same time, and with a
spiritualized kind of eros, where the love for the personal beloved has
something deeper and more spiritual standing behind it. Then you have
'witches' being burnt at the stake and the Church coming down on the
Cathars--who had influenced the troubadours--and within a century or so
following that, not a hell of a lot happening , at least in the West, in terms of
a certain kind of love poetry, poetry with a devotional flavor where the
personal and transpersonal intermingle, never again a huge global wave of it
like there had been before...

We might say that when you burn Sophia at the stake, love and wisdom
become separated from each other.
Perhaps when we killed the Gnostics and
buried Sophia, we buried our deep images, and lost half of our philosophy,
leaving us with less wisdom in our loving, as if love has lost its logos and
become merely emotional love--a love that as Gurdjieff says, more easily
turns into its opposite. And then not only do our love lyrics become
trivialized and cheapened--just listen to rap music--but the whole culture
ceases to be ground in either love or wisdom...

 

MR: Could you say more about the coming together of the personal eros
with the spiritual, back in the thirteen and fourteen hundreds?

GR: For this brief window of time there was an intermingling of what we
could call the personal and the transpersonal happening somewhere in the
collective... men were going off into an idealized love and service to Mother
Church--the crusaders fighting in a holy war... and after the disasterous first
Crusade, the Pope then forbade women to go off with the men on their
journey to the Holy Land--so perhaps after this initial idealization of the
Church, and seeing oneself as being devoted to God, willing to die for the
good cause, you then have men returning to women, and bringing some of
that noble, elevated, idealizing tendency into their personal, romantic
relationships--only instead of the Virgin Mary, its the wife of the feudal lord
who's getting that idealized projection...

But although there was something kind of juicy and spiritual going on in
regards to love back in the 13th century, we should be clear that this
phenomenon and its attendent idealizing of the feminine was not a culture-
wide phenomenon, even in Southern France where the troubadours briefly
flourished. The troubadour sensibility actually seems a corrective reaction
to the then dominant wider culture, a wider culture that actually was
extremely dismissive and chauvinistic towards women--a culture where
women were routinely beaten by their husbands--wife abuse was more
common then than child abuse--and at this time women commonly feared
their husbands, even when they loved them. And this is one more reason,
among many, that in the troubadour tradition real love was seen as
something that existed outside of marriage...

In the French upper classes, from which the tradition of courtly love arose,
marriages were usually arranged, and by one's family. You weren't marrying
someone you were in love with, but marrying someone your family had
selected, and for economic and political reasons. You weren't marrying an
individual you had chosen, but in a sense, you were marrying a family. And
if you were a woman, you were being married off at sixteen or seventeen, and
the guy your family was marrying you to was often twice your age. So there
was often a huge discrepency in life experience, and the couple might not
have even had much to say to each other. And so it was quite common for
people to take lovers outside their marriages--a convention that has
continued to this day in French culture. And it was the love that happened
outside of wedlock that was more 'the real thing.'

Yet when I speak about the high middle ages being a time when there was a
confluence of personal love and divine love, it's really only small, but
culturally significant sub-cultures that I'm speaking of, where this confluence
elevated romantic love. And even here, I'm speaking mostly of the men.
For when you read the women troubadours--who existed mostly in Southern
France-- for some reason you don't find the same transference or elevation or
idealizing going on. They didn't get so lofty...

 

MR: Why do you suppose that was? Why didn't the women tend to
idealize love in the way the men troubadours did?

GR: Maybe because what you are naturally closer to, and more in touch
with in a daily way, you then don't tend to idealize. The women troubadours
wrote closer to the bone, and called a spade a spade--"this is what happened,
and how I feel about it"
--and in this way their responses to their
relationships feel more down to earth, more contemporary, less
sentimentalized, more calibrated to what was going on at the personal
level...

And as has always been the case, the women were probably more in touch
with their bodies, and less raised above them by abstractions. The Jungians
say that when we get in touch with our inferior function that that's where
our demons come in, but also our angels, and so for the men to finally open
to our more characteristically retarded feeling function, this can also open the
floodgate to the more archetypal realm, to some really deep emotional
currents in which the Virgin Mary, the barndoor, and the whole universe
comes into it...

Another factor here was probably a carry-over from feudal society, where
men pledged a devoted allegiance to their feudal lords--and there was actually
a ceremony where this was done with the men on their knees before their
lords--in the same gesture or pose as that classical one when a man is asking
for a lady's hand in marriage. So there was this kind of devoted, chivalric
impulse going on at the time, especially amongst the men, that got played
out in service to the feudal lord, and to the Church, and then naturally
toward women...

And however misguided it might seem to us now, there's something I
find quite lovely about this, about putting another first, and being willing to
horizontalize the mast of ego, to bow down before something other than your
own egoic desires...and this selfless or altruistic impulse in itself can activate a
deep vein of feeling, not at all dis-similar to the humble, melted, and
devotional feelings that can come up in Guru Yoga.

As I've said elsewhere, there's actually a lot of similarity between the
medieval love poetry in praise of the lady, and the devotional poetry from
Eastern cultures that's been written in praise of the guru. Yet this doesn't
seem to play so well or occur so frequently in a more democratic, "me first,"
narcissistic culture such as our own...

 

MR: And how does this relate to the Crone? What's the relationship
between the Crone and the love spigot either opening or getting turned off?

GR: When a culture begins to no longer value the feminine, and the crone
in particular, you lose the mature feminine in the culture--and the cultural
ideal for women tends to be more bimbo and playmate of the month than
Sophia, or Wisdom.

In Southern France where the troubadour thing was happening, women
were more highly valued, they were allowed more power and could actually
inherit land which was elsewhere unheard of. Also up in the Pyrenees
region, its a mountain culture, one in which even by the fourteenth century
there were no horse driven, wheeled forms of transport. So it was more
culturally isolated than the lowlands where you had better forms of
transportation. And so on the whole, something could take root there for a
time that was more out of reach --until the Church brought an extemely
capable and meticulous man to lead the Inquisition, a man who later became
the Pope, while also bringing Northern noblemen down on that culture
during the Albegensian Crusades, which became a landgrab that destroyed the
culture from which the troubadours arose, a culture in which the Sophia
aspect had flourished...

...Now for whatever part of you might get off on the playmate of the month,
she's not apt to be such a great muse for some deep impulse that really shakes
your soul up, and brings you to your knees. So its as if our souls have wound
up landing in some kind of Gnostically fallen world, where wisdom isn't
much valued, and where there's an exaggerating of the importance of youth,
and the physical charms of youth, and part of what then results is that it
becomes harder for men in the culture to learn what they need to learn from
its mature
women ... in order to become whole and reach the depths of
feeling realization they would otherwise be capable of, and need to be capable
of in order to write great love poetry.
This is something I'm writing about
now in my book about Persephone...

 

MR: Well, if the crone has been lost--

GR: The crone hasn't been lost, she's only been overlooked , and then, as in the
fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty," the wise old woman that we tend to see as a witch
--and want to burn at the stake--throws a curse on the whole kingdom when
she's not invited to the wedding...and then everyone goes unconscious...
even the animals...dreaming, with their twitching paws...

When the crone hasn't been honored, not only do the men not get to learn
what they need to learn from women, but women seem to be affected too, for
the culture's lack of visible role models of the more autonomous crone can
lead women to become more relationally dependent, looking to men for
validation, as if there's some 'it' that they need to get from outside themselves.
Which then throws a note of acrimony into male-female realationships
when the men can't provide the missing 'it' the women are looking to them for.
And I see this as "the case of the missing Crone," which is actually the title for
one of the chapters in my Persephone book. The crone is the one aspect of the
triple goddess that is not dependent on a relationship in order to define her...
but in a Christian culture like ours, where is she?

...You can look at the television or any billboard and see the lovely maiden
seducing our attention with her physical charms, and you can see the mother
aspect everywhere as well, perhaps pouring cereal like Demeter might, or
touting cleaning products for the home--but no crone. We put our crones in
old age homes while everyone in the media is going gaga over the next
Hollywood ingenue or pop singer. These pretty young women are on the
cover of every magazine, for women have learned to idealize youth as well,
while in some way devaluing older women, and trying to do everything in
their power to avoid even the appearance of aging.

It could be a revealing inventory for contemporary women to take stock of
all the beauty products, all the time and money they spend in trying to look
younger
--and then compare that to how much expenditure goes into
cultivating the soul or doing inner work. And the reason is that in a culture
preoccupied with the superficial image--versus what poets in the late 1960s
were calling "deep image"--in a culture where the imagination is trivialized
and preoccupied with youth, then being old equates with being unlovable.
And since nobody wants that, what's looking back at you from the magazine
racks everytime you're waiting in line to buy groceries? Young vapid
beauties! They're everywhere! But it seems we only are capable of noticing
about one crone every fifty years. Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa are
no longer with us, so who do we have? Maybe Hilary Rodham Clinton is a
crone in waiting.

 

MR: I was starting to ask if the Crone has been lost, or as you say, overlooked
--and with it the wise feminine--then what is available today, and how
might that impact upon our capacity or incapacity when to comes to love, and
writing about love?

GR ...I suspect that we're due for an infusion of some good Crone energy as
many of the wonderful women of my generation continue to get older and
become free of child-rearing duties, and increasingly inject their perspective
into the culture. So that should help us. And I should probably put in a plug
for psychotherapy, which has gotten a lot better, or at least some of it has in
the last few decades, which has not only been a boon for the poets and writers
willing to take advantage of it, but also done something by way of creating a
more psychologically savvy audience for them to speak to and be supported
by.

There seems to be more people out there today who can 'get it,' probably
more of an audience today in the culture for poetry than ever before, an
audience that is hungry for a poetry and a wisdom literature that can include
the psychological and spiritual nuances of relationship... And I think that the
Eastern meditative traditions that have begun entering the culture over the
past thirty years when combined with the increased awareness of the
psychological realm that therapy has brought may now make possible a
reiteration of what was in the air back in the 13th and 14th centuries--a kind
of new Gnosticism, and one in which the intimate love relationship can be a
kind of spiritual practice. For this was a time when the love of God and the
love of a man or woman for each other seemed to be closely linked--so the
spiritual wisdom tradition and the poetic love tradition may really go hand in
hand.

 

MR: In your poetry readings you've also mentioned something about a shift
in erotic rhythm, and how that can lead to an emotional deepening...

GR: Yes, six or seven hundred years ago when love poems seemed to be
more plentiful, there seemed a different erotic rhythm than what I grew up
with in the late nineteen sixties--where you might meet someone at a concert,
smoke a little dope together, and an hour later be making love in the back of a
Volkswagon van. Things were quite different back in the time of the
troubadours!

It wasn't an age of instant telecommunications--or instant gratification.
There was a lot of waiting involved. It could be a very big deal to be at a social
gathering--if you were a member of the upper classes, from which the
tradition of courtly love originated--and have the lady drop her
handkerchief...and in picking it up you actually got to touch her hand.
Weeks might go by before a note got passed. It might be months before you
actually got to be alone with the man or woman you loved...

Plus, in the French tradition the lady was usually married to somebody
else--so it wasn't so easy to consummate things. And in the time of waiting,
all the time of being apart from the man or woman you loved, the energy
would build--a lot of longing had time to arise--and out of this longing some deeper
energies in the soul had time to well up, and along with it a lot of poems and
songs got written.

Perhaps what was being impeded from a quick release on the physical
plane helped activate something on a more psychic, archetypal plane,
contributing to that more elevated sense of the beloved. And in terms of
our own time, it may be that the AIDS epidemic and the sexual restraint and
conservatism that has come up behind it, could at least potentially recreate
the sublimational pattern that led to such a poetic flowering back in the high
middle ages.

 

MR: So 'the time of waiting' can be important. You've also alluded to this
in regards to whatever critical or popular success a writer might have. And
that just as ' getting physical' too early can cut something off emotionally and
spiritually in love relationships, similarly, too much success too early can be
an impediment to one's art as well as to one's spiritual development--and
that there's a relationship between the two...

GR: Very much, unless you're not only really great in your art as well as
having a great, mature soul--and very few of us are either --let alone both,
especially when we are young. And we must not forget that the really great
poets like Blake and Rumi and Rilke were also great souls. And that depth of
soul which is going to be capable of writing poetry that can endure and help
guide and uplift people for centuries to come, that kind of soul depth isn't
something that's going to come to you by attending the Iowa Writers
Workshop, or by the mere accumulation of craft...

The really great stuff often seems to have an effortless quality, like its
bubbling straight up from the Source. So the effort and spiritual discipline
really needs to be there before one sits down to write...like weeding your
garden first before you plant anything. We really need to work on ourselves
and do our spiritual homework or our innate wisdom won't have a landing
pad. The well won't be dug deep enough to receive the really sweet and
vivifying water.

 

 

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