Content note: A brief discussion of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Also contains a dog. Transcript follows the embedded player below.
Anxiety and similar conditions can be exacerbated in times of uncertainty, so future episodes during the pandemic will feature content warnings where relevant. While the poems shared may remain directly or tangentially relevant to the global situation, mention of Covid-19 will be avoided after this episode.
Two of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s works feature in this episode, recorded from self-isolation.
“The face of all the world is changed, I think, Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink, Was caught up into love, and taught the whole Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink, And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear. The names of country, heaven, are changed away For where thou art or shalt be, there or here; And this … this lute and song … loved yesterday, (The singing angels know) are only dear, Because thy name moves right in what they say.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Okay, so it’s a sonnet about love – the 7th Sonnet From the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But it might serve to remind us that poetry is often intrinsically about a shifting view and experience of the world, often brought on by external factors.
The Coronavirus pandemic has been described as a black swan event, but that isn’t really a fair assessment. We knew. We knew, for centuries, that lowered technological barriers to migration brought with them the easier spread of disease. Ask any indigenous people how we learned this. We know that pathogens evolve. We know that a less predictable climate puts more evolutionary stresses on all organisms.
We knew, in short, that it is only ever, in this context, a matter of time between pandemics.
And nations prepared, to different extents. Communication protocols and health infrastructure. Scalable plans for managing populations.
But population and people are not interchangeable terms, as we’ve been learning, and people don’t always like to be managed.
People react, in times of pressure, and those reactions are sometimes at odds with the best-considered plans. Change can bring out the irrational and the selfish in any of us – but it can also challenge us to be better, and we’ve already seen many selfless and considerate examples through these early months.
My wife and I are in voluntary self-isolation this week after recent travels in the US – but unless an incredible streak of luck intrudes, Aotearoa is going to step up measures to continue slowing the spread of the virus. So, like much of the world, we’re looking at the possibility of several months with limited interpersonal interaction outside our household.
I wanted to acknowledge the situation, but during this time – health permitting – I’m planning to record more frequent podcasts, sharing poetry that represents the better aspects of humanity in the face of adversity and change.
One practical strategy my wife and I have implemented is taking time away from news feeds and social media each day, to prevent, or at least reduce, obsession over elements of the pandemic that we can’t change. Phones away, we play a board game, discuss a random topic, make art, read, exercise, or watch something. We’re trying to make those choices conscious and deliberate, so we don’t get stuck in a routine that feeds less healthy habits.
In a similar vein, this is a difficult time for many people with anxiety, so I’ll be prefacing each coming episode with a tone advisory, and avoiding direct comment about Covid-19 from here on.
I can’t promise every poem I choose will be uplifting, but I’m hoping to share an eclectic mix of works ranging from the outright entertaining and humorous to the introspective.
The second poem today is another piece by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that runs this gamut.
Before you panic, there is a comma in the title. It’s called To Flush, My Dog.
This episode discusses “Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou, in unpacking why you’re hearing so much historical (if still relevant) poetry in these parts, and little from the diverse voices of the now. Transcript follows the embedded player below.
Image of Maya Angelou is in the public domain, sourced from Wikimedia.org
Regular listeners will have noticed that the poetry shared has a distinct historical bias… With very few 20th Century and no contemporary works.
I wanted to touch on why that is, and how it fits with my desire to share a diverse range of poets, when minority voices had – by definition – much less visibility the further into the recent past we recede.
There are two factors at play.
Firstly, many of the more recent poems that I admire, such as Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” which is among my favourites, have distinct narrative voices that are anchored in current and historic injustice.
I want to be clear here – I have no ethical objection to reading such a poem aloud, as that’s part of the experience of poetry, and taking on a speaker’s voice is also part of the empathy that poetry evokes.
After all, I have taken on the voice of a Pharaoh, a murderer, a statue, a God, a woman, an atheist and a prophet without hesitation, despite being almost none of those things.
And I will happily read “Still I rise” aloud to absorb it more fully and let it resonate through another of my senses – BUT
BUT there is an important distinction when a poem speaks for an individual who is a member of an oppressed demographic, and refers to a struggle that is ongoing.
On the other hand, it’s equally vital to remember that a poet who happens to identify with a particular community is not limited to writing speakers from that community – the usual rules of presumption and poetic empathy apply, even when a poet may incline towards writing from a particular perspective.
It’s important, in short, that seeking to empathise with and boost minority voices isn’t done in a way that limits them.
In “Still I rise,” the speaker addresses societal depictions of African American women in the U.S. She responds to these problematic presentations with a defiant distillation of power and the quiet optimism of inevitability, and it’s an utterly beautiful work – that is best shared by a more appropriate spoken voice than mine.
Can the poem speak to other struggles? Absolutely. It’s a broadly powerful piece, and readings from different perspectives may provide different insights and impact. But the imagery is such that it’s harder for my speaking voice to appropriately align with a poem that is profoundly gendered and profoundly rooted in a specific racial injustice that does not overlap with my own formative ancestry or experience.
I am not, to repeat myself, saying it’s immoral for me to read the poem – I think everyone should read this poem! I’m saying that a white, cis-male voice performing this particular piece, and others of a similar vein, would be a subversion of the narrative, and one of questionable value.
This distinction is also found at the heart of allyship, and is the difference between giving a platform to minority voices and co-opting or distorting those same voices. So I’ll encourage you to go and listen to Maya Angelou reading her own work, rather than diminish its impact by reading it myself – and I’ll leave a link in the show notes.
So that’s one factor at play – trying to ensure that pieces I choose to share here are appropriate when I read them – but the other concern is a little more pragmatic, and the same reason I don’t embed Maya Angelou’s voice in the podcast – it’s around copyright.
This varies slightly country to country, but I’ll use the US as an example, where copyright currently extends for 70 years from the death of an author. There are caveats on top of that – for example, the publisher of a particular edition has copyright for their presentation of the text – and fair-use rules can be thorny to negotiate, especially across different jurisdictions.
If this podcast eventually reaches a wider audience, I’d like to engage with some contemporary poets and have them share and discuss their work here – but that’s an aspiration rather than a plan at this stage.
Of course, if you happen to be a poet or a rights-holder listening to this episode, and would like to contribute, feel free to get in touch via Twitter or the website.
For now, though, this is an personal project with limited resources, which means a necessary focus on more historical pieces – but I didn’t want that mistaken for any arbitrary aversion to more recent and topical works.
I do have a particular love for 16th and 17th Century poetry, as well as the Romantic and Victorian periods—but there are many incredible poets alive and writing today whose works can cut and cure as readily as any of their predecessors.
So this episode comes with a little homework, which I’ll be doing myself. Jump onto Google and search for a contemporary poet.
Search for a poet who is also a refugee, like Behrouz Boochani. Search for a poet who has also experienced marginalisation because of their gender, like Trace Peterson. Listen to the breadth of their works, and both the universality and specificity in the voices of their speakers.
Because of their backgrounds, their unique contexts, they can evoke voices that I would struggle to reach, but impactful poetry is also a reliance on those regions where our shared cultural figures overlap, and a conjuration of empathy where it might otherwise elude our perception. It’s about finding moments of connection in the apparently different, and using them to slowly, inevitably, weave us together.
We celebrate a somewhat healthier love in this Valentine’s Day episode, with Mary Shelley’s “Oh, come to me in dreams, my love!” and provide some context for the Greek myth it draws on. Transcript follows the embedded player below.
Image or Eros and Psyche is in the public domain, sourced from Wikimedia.org
The origins of Valintinus, known as Saint Valentine, are largely apocryphal. It was a popular name in 3rd Century Rome, and what is likely is that several clergymen named Valintinus were put to death for their faith.
The Valentine whose Christian feast day is celebrated on February 14 might have been one individual or the superimposition of two or more – but the object of veneration today is generally neither the man nor the myths that built up around his later patronage, but Love.
More accurately, the object of veneration is often the commercial trappings of Valentine’s Day, which has become an increasingly fiscal event in capitalist societies.
My wife and I decided early in our relationship that reserving an arbitrary day to be overtly or extravagantly romantic could cheapen the other 364 – so instead we take Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate the everyday beauty of our relationship, to reaffirm the quality time we already spend together, and to enjoy a chance to reflect on how we’ve nurtured our relationship in the last year.
So while we won’t be elbowing our way into florists or brushing off the evening wear, we are not going to diminish a day that celebrates love, however murky its origins.
In that spirit I’ve chosen a lesser known poem for this episode, by Mary Shelley. Better known as the author of Frankenstein, and identifying as a writer of prose, even her non-fiction work contained a poetic sensibility at times, and the following poem is a beautiful piece.
It offers a timely contrast to our discussion of Porphyria’s Lover, and the toxic model of love it highlights.
“Oh, come to me in dreams, my love!” is a poem in four stanzas that invokes one of the most famous Greek myths about love: the story of Psyche and Eros.
Psyche is a familiar term to modern sensibilities referring to the structure of the mind, but it means “soul” in Greek. Eros is the personification of physical desire, from whom we obtain the modern English “erotic”. In Greek myth, he is also the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, which is where the conflict of this story arises.
The story begins, as Greek myths often do, with the intersection of the mortal and divine.
The myth is worthy of its own consideration, but we’ll hit the high points that are relevant to the poem and I’ll leave links to a couple of versions in the show notes.
Aphrodite becomes aware that people are comparing Psyche’s human beauty favourably to hers, so she sends her son, Eros, to curse Psyche.
Eros, inevitably, falls in love with Psyche, and refuses to curse her. In different versions of the myth, Aphrodite then curses Psyche herself, or Psyche’s beauty is such that it frightens would-be mortal suitors away.
Either way, the result is the same: Psyche’s royal parents consult an oracle to find out why their third daughter has not found a lover, and are told that an “inhuman winged serpent” is her destined husband. The description is ambiguous, and of course a less obvious reading would fit Eros, who has conspired to spirit her away.
Psyche, vitally, chooses to meet this apparently grim fate, and is instead borne away by Zephyrus, the west wind, to a beautiful palace surrounded by an enchanted wood. Eros is with her every night, but warns her that if she looks upon his face he will leave her.
She asks whether her sisters can visit her, and Eros reluctantly agrees. Zephyrus brings them to the palace and they are struck with jealousy, inferring that her husband must be a god. When she admits that she hasn’t seen his face, her sisters warn her that he must be a beast who will devour her child when she gives birth.
In sudden uncertainty and fear, Psyche takes a knife and a lamp that evening, and looks upon Eros for the first time while he sleeps. But in her very moment of relief, a drop of oil from the lamp lands on his skin, and he wakes, betrayed, and flees.
Psyche immediately searches for him, but none of the gods are prepared to assist her and risk Aphrodite’s wrath. Eventually, she appeals to Aphrodite herself, who sets her a series of impossible trials, similar to the trials of Heracles.
In classical heroic fashion, Psyche succeeds in each task, generally by being more judicious about who to trust, until her curiosity again bites her and she ends up in an enchanted sleep.
Eros, meanwhile, is tortured in equal measure by betrayal and the loss of Psyche, but he eventually seeks her out. Finding her under the spell, he wakes her and together they fulfill her final task, after which, in short, Zeus grants her entry to the pantheon of Gods.
Which brings us back to Mary Shelley’s Stanzas. The following poem invokes the pivotal moment of the myth, when Psyche looks upon Eros for the first time and in doing so betrays him.
It’s important to remember that Psyche and Eros have a happily-ever-after, despite this moment, and the speaker invokes that subject knowledge here to posit an even better outcome for themselves by subverting the myth.
Picture is by Herbert Rose Barraud, a Woodburytype portrait of Robert Browning, and is in the Public Domain. Sourced from Wikimedia.org
More than a murder ballad – How Robert Browning called out sitcom romance as the worst, in 1836.
I’ve been carrying Porphyria’s Lover with me for some years now. It’s among the first works that showed me the scope of poetry, and for that reason it’s one I keep returning to.
But there are a few interesting features of this work for a modern audience, and turning a critical eye to the piece can really help them pop.
The first thing to consider is that the speaker, the titular Lover, is genderless – or at least, no personal pronouns are used to describe them. The temptation today would be to read this poem as a commentary on gender politics, the patriarchy and the power imbalance inherent in societal structures that literally has life and death repercussions – and you could make an argument for that reading… However, there’s something else going on here. The speaker is also speechless. “… And called me. When no voice replied.”
They are also agent-less for the first half of the poem. “She put my arm about her waist and made her smooth white shoulder bare, and all her yellow hair displaced, and stooping made my cheek lie there and spread o’er all her yellow hair.”
Porphyria has all the power, all the agency, at first. Let’s consider the actions of the poem in list form, and who or what is ascribed them:
The rain sets early in, and is full of rage and frustration, although largely impotent – it tears “the elm tops down, for spite” and does “its worst to vex the lake”
The speaker only listens. Porphyria glides into the cottage. She makes the fire blaze up. She shuts the door. She systematically removes her outerwear. She sits down. She calls her lover. She moves their arm around her. She adjusts her hair. She murmurs words of love and regret. She chose to visit her lover tonight, despite the weather and the circumstances that prevent them being together. The lover finally acts, and even that is merely to look “up at her eyes” And then they find “a thing to do.”
Up until that point they have been entirely passive. They have listened, silently. They have observed. But they have not interacted with Porphyria, except through her own actions.
And in that moment of “love,” what do they find to do? Murder.
The speaker is genderless, nondescript (unless you count “one so pale for love of her,” which I wouldn’t – that’s the invocation of a Classical trope, not a description) and powerless. They are a placeholder, then for something else.
This poem is often introduced as a murder ballad, an attempt to get inside the mind of a killer. But I’d posit something more in Browning’s effort here. For one, a study in aberrant psychology would ideally imbue the subject with some personality to study. Instead we have a singular fixation: Porphyria is the speaker’s entire focal point, and everything is framed around her and their relationship. This element is not novel, and is in fact a feature of much earlier love poetry – it’s the very overly wrought depiction that Shakespeare argues against in Sonnet 130 – so if this is meant to be a psychological study of a murderer, it’s a highly derivative and inconsistent one.
Bear in mind the historical context. Porphyria’s Lover was written in 1836. That’s about ten years before Wuthering Heights, but a couple of decades after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma.
This is a literary period that defined not only the term romantic, but also our concept of toxic masculinity and the nascent buds of the modern feminist movement.
It was also a period during which Classical – capital “c” – notions of love and the division between eros and agape became heavily scrutinised, and more contemporary depictions of love began to evolve.
In this poem, we have two clear archetypes in the single “person” of the speaker, and the result of their conflation. Interestingly, this same conflation is often identified as a core misstep that contributes to damaging models of masculinity today.
The first archetype is this: the lover who literally lives for their beloved, even if that love is unrequited. This is an ancient trope, although the more recent Romeo and Juliet is certainly the example that springs to mind and is probably the most responsible for identifying it as a depiction of love.
The second archetype is just as cliched, but remains more acceptable in modern texts, even though it is arguably the more problematic of the two: the lover who wants to possess their beloved, and for whom jealousy is inseparable from love.
In the speaker we have both archetypes taken to their logical conclusions, in turns. So we have the lover who is utterly powerless without their beloved. They cannot even keep the fire going, or speak, or move, without Porphyria. She is their all, and they are “so pale” – near death – without her.
We then have the lover who sees a chance to keep her all for themselves, at a single, terrible cost. And here we see the tragic conflation of the two archetypes: the lover who lives only for love makes a consistent logical extrapolation: if Porphyria also loves them in the same manner in that moment, then her ultimate wish would be to preserve the moment by any means necessary – and we’ve already established that life, and therefore death, means nothing so long as you “have” your beloved.
Browning’s poem is interesting because it so cleanly draws this distinction. This is not the deranged act of a deviant murderer – it’s the logical, inescapable outcome of jealous, hyperbolic treatments of love that diminish the agency of the participants, diminish their partnership, making them subservient pawns to the love itself.
Objectification is another component often raised by the poem, because there’s another inversion going on here. The lover is not initially objectifying Porphyria, but themselves. Porphyria is the human with agency, and the lover is the object with a single purpose: to fulfil her wish. The closing lines make this explicit, even while shifting to the language of objectification for Porphyria: “I, its love, am gained instead.” The lover is the object of desire, attained by Porphyria’s implied wish – although said wish is discerned only by projecting the lover’s understanding of love into Porphyria.
She could not “give herself to me forever”, the lover states early in the poem. So instead, they “give themselves” to Porphyria in a moment where they see their level of intensity reflected – and in that warped understanding of love, it’s entirely consistent that it doesn’t matter which one of them is alive. In fact, it makes sense for the lover to be the living guardian of their relationship, because their side of the relationship is constant and unfailing.
This type of obsession is again a trope dating to the earliest human stories. In the works of Ovid we see the Olympian gods obsessing over favourite mortals, contorting the stuff of the universe itself to maintain unhealthy relationships.
And yet, consistently through the ages, this same type of destructive and deeply problematic love is lauded again and again.
Want to show two characters are falling in love? Do we demonstrate their deepening trust and mutual understanding? Sometimes, yes. But more often we still see acute jealousy used as a shorthand for an emergent relationship.
Spoilers ahead, but look at Episode 9 of Star Wars for an unnecessary and misguided example of this – the injection of jealous reactions into Poe’s character to hint at possible emergent relationships does not demonstrate the measured, mature reaction of someone you’d want to promote to the rank of General, but the poorly-formed, immature response of a child who has been taught erroneously about love, and never grown above those lessons.
Better still, look at any major TV series of the last few decades: Almost every single character on Friends, The Simpsons, Modern Family, Castle, How I Met Your Mother, or Parks and Rec has undergone arcs featuring jealous behaviour as a demonstration of love – and often love that is held up as a model.
And yet it’s been self-evident throughout history that, while this model of “love” is often a learned feature of our first relationship – maybe our first two or three relationships if we are slow learners – it’s also something we need to be more consciously critical of if we don’t want it to persist as a norm.
Shakespeare attempted this when he killed Romeo and Juliet – they were never characters to be emulated. And Browning does the same thing, in an even starker demonstration, in Porphyria’s Lover.
Porphyria’s Lover is not a portrait of a killer. It’s a portrait of problematic social norms which persist to this day. It’s an indictment of jealousy and a reminder that love and obsession should not be confused.
Let’s share it again with that distinction in mind, and see if it can spark anything the next time we go to repeat a stale cliche about relationships or perpetuate a logically indefensible mindset towards love: