The other day, in my math textbook, I came across this sentence: “Continuous random variables are idealized mathematical objects.” The idea being that, although a variable like “lengths of a certain species of snake in a zoo” could in theory be infinitely precise, in practice the measurement is limited to the (finite) number of decimal places that we use. And I thought to myself: Aren’t what we call emotions something of idealized literary objects?
We say fear, but it’s tinged with excitement. We say joy, but there’s always the dread of it coming to an end. And how accurate is it to say “love” when it carries with it fractions of dependence, envy, desire for possession or hate when hate often implies fear and so respect and so admiration? “It seems strange,” wrote novelist extraordinaire Janet Burroway, “that the Inuit have 70 words for snow, but we only have one for pain.”
With that in mind, here are some valiant attempts by poets to describe the infinite complexity of human emotions with the finite measurement of words. (Only loosely related to a belated Valentine’s Day.)
“Some Feel Rain” by Joanna Klick
If you’re anything like me (which you should be glad you’re not), last February had your arm in a post-surgery sling, your brain bumbling through complex analysis, and somehow you managed to get broken up with by someone you weren’t even technically seeing. And it was raining. Here’s a song, as they say, for some of those moments.
“Should the Wide World Roll Away” by Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane, a Civil War veteran, wrote mostly cynical (my words) imagist poems. This one, however, nearly captures the purest of longings and desire.
“The Promise” by Sharon Olds
Love and death, according to some poets, is all that is worth writing about. There are variations, of course: beauty and blood, joy and pain and so on. Many poems capture the intricate balance between these, but few are as haunting as this one by Sharon Olds.
“The Poem You Asked For” by Larry Levis
Because sometimes you just need to say it.
“If You Forget Me” by Pablo Neruda
When they were moving out, someone gave me a poinsettia over the holidays. Now the poor thing’s leaves are falling off and the stems are shriveled. I don’t know if I’m watering it too much or not enough, or if it’s too cold or far from the sun. In thinking about giving and receiving appropriate amounts of affection, no love poem collection would be complete without this Neruda piece.
“Gate C22” by Ellen Bass
It’s always tough to choose an Ellen Bass poem, especially when it comes to love. But when you read this one, somewhere between the witnessing of passion, the longing for love and the promise of having been once loved, you’ll understand why I saved it for last.
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