Gweek Shares on Love Poetry!

May 14, 2015

This public lecture was given at the Robert B. and Metta J. Silliman Library in Silliman University, Dumaguete City, The Philippines, on 14 May 2015. It was part of the 54th instalment of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop, which is the oldest creative writing programme in Asia.

Thank you for inviting me to your beautiful, historic campus and for making me a part of Silliman University’s long and rich literary heritage. This is an honour to me as well as a special blessing. Dr Richardo de Ungria, the director of your National Writers Workshop, was in constant touch with me for all of last month, and, at one late point, he asked me gently what I would be lecturing on. My immediate response was, “Am I giving a lecture?”

I think that we gave each other a bout of heart attack then. Thankfully, the panic didn’t last long, and, when a clear thought soon came to me like a song, I knew that this was what I needed to expound. Today I wish to talk about love poetry not just because, in love, we can all find a language that is more common and natural than language itself. It is not just because love is this universal topic that has fascinated every literate culture across time, expanding its body of songs and poems.

In fact, I am well aware that one of the most exuberant traditions of the romantic is found here in the Philippines. This was surely why, when Singaporean and Filipino poets collaborated on an anthology back in 2002, the theme had been love. That charming collection, called Love Gathers All, was edited by Ramón Sunico, Alfred Yuson, Alvin Pang, and Aaron Lee.

Given this knowledge of how steeped your culture is in romantic expression, I am clearly putting myself at great risk to attempt to comment on it here. I run a high chance of being embarrassed on a grand scale, of being found ignorant or gravely mistaken. Yet, I wish to proceed primarily because I doubt that this opportunity to dissect love poetry will come to me back in my country. In Singapore where even literary interests are practical, I am likelier to get speaking engagements on so-called more relevant or accessible concerns such as “Why write?”, “Is there a career in the arts?”, and “What is the role of Singaporean literature?”

Besides, I cannot be certain that, even if the chance presented itself, I would not refrain from taking it up for more personal reasons. There are, after all, people who know too well this relationship of mine in focus, family members and friends for whom my long discussion in Singapore would feel too close, too cruel.

But my love poems remain a terrain I must somehow confront since they are still my freshest creative experiences, having appeared in print as One Thousand and One Nights last year. I feel that I have an obligation to put the aesthetic lessons I learnt through them out there – before I forget these along with all in a failed romance I wish to forget.

One Thousand and One Nights is what I like to describe to people who ask as “my happy-sad book”. It collects forty love poems I have written for a Korean novelist I met and fell in love with during my sojourn in South Korea several years ago. From the beginning, this love was ill-starred – but how could any lover have known it and, even if he or she did, do anything else? Stendhal, in a little treatise on love published in 1822, described love as a fever that put no limit on age and could come and go “quite independently of the will”.[1]

It was indeed despite the effort my lover and I took, talking all the time and travelling to and with each other, that the end came to me one day like a stranger at the door. This end further arrived at the most ironic of times, soon after the first draft for my book had been completed and sent out. At that point in time, the relationship was almost three years long, slightly over one thousand and one days – hence enabling the volume’s magical title.

But what does one do when love ends and especially when one already has a manuscript with one’s publisher celebrating, in all innocence, that love? It seems inevitable that the publisher will become a confidant and a mentor, and Goh Eck Kheng played these two sudden roles very well. Goh, my publisher, advised me to set the book project aside and promised that he would bring it up again only when he felt that I had experienced enough distance.

When I finally did return to look at my first manuscript in the early months of 2014, I felt a strange sensation like a revisit to a beautiful childhood home. The manuscript was reading by now like a very different book to me, its author, who had become a lover at a very different, heartbroken stage. Accordingly, I set out to revise all the poems once more in order to make them truer to a current sense of decorative memory and painful loss. I aimed this time to edit by embedding a second layer, a subtle stratum of precognition, of foreboding, across the entire text.

In other words, I added into the frame for all my moments of oblivious happy loving this quiet hanging sword of an end. The result is uncanny: what saw print as One Thousand and One Nights has a rather Gothic quality as it, in effect, contains a ghoulish double, its own doppelgänger. One Thousand and One Nights emerges as two books of the same name in one, One Thousand and One Nights the burier of One Thousand and One Nights.

My belated editing has functioned like this kind of interment that allows me both to preserve or immortalise my lost romance and to end it tangibly. It allows me a paradox of making this love I treasure eternal and yet also final enough for me to move on from. That is technically how the book as artefact or as memorial is supposed to work – and I am reminded here of John Keats’s Grecian urn, an object that is of both beauty and death. Of course, my own actual, emotional life is always something, somewhere else.

I can illustrate to you how this effect of a haunting dual tone that celebrates and grieves transforms the collected poems. For example, “Bee Farm” is one of a number of titles I barely needed to re-edit – but sense what happens even here as I read it. The piece is set way before the relationship started, and it revolves around a visit my lover and I made to a mutual poet-friend who is also an apiarist, a beekeeper:

In reality, the keepers
had been some other couple,
friends now after we feasted
on their soft floor of home.

But, when the mind labours
to write its own fiction,
I wonder whether we were
collecting nectar even then.

A careless day we squandered
away to reach a new friend
and gawk at her toy pagodas,
beehives littered across a slope.

You were rubber-booted for mud
and saw the colonies’ treasures;
as evening tempted us in, we
rustled and waded at the foot

of mountains, their paths achoke
with leaves and river water.
Our fates were starting to bend
through this forest of friends:

nature parted the trees
and opened hidden trails,
letting our mouthlessness touch
the hour’s dimming warmth.

Or how else might I have come
now to yearn for your taste of light
and to feed on your soft voice
calling the stars by name?

How else can I explain
my modest wish to kiss you
as long as the wet of dew
on the last autumn leaf?

Love that grows like the secret
comb of bees, quick with surprise,
has the sediments of time
to affect its produce.

It shapes on a kind smile,
a first twitch of the heart,
an ignorance to how a drop
of us is already stolen.[2]

Up to the time of One Thousand and One Nights, I hardly attempted love poetry, let alone with such dangerously deep investment and at such a scale. Writing and editing the book were for me not just a novel experience but also an excruciatingly painful one. I will not recommend making a book this way as therapy, as a means to cope with heartbreak, to anyone. Much better that you rant and curse at the one you lost or mourn for him or her than to stay a lonely, principled custodian of the past, of abandoned good memories!

But I have laboured under a fool’s belief that to grieve at love’s end is only to respond to half the truth of a relationship that, until its demise, was full of happiness. I have thought that, firstly, the end comes to all relationships anyway, whether through a breakup or a death, and that, secondly, a relationship has to be remembered for all it has been and not just for its end.

If you have ever felt the weight of death in a heartbreak, perhaps you can begin to imagine how it must have felt to endeavour quixotically – aptly from the word “Quixote-like”, naming my type of stupidity – to reconstruct not with photographs but with living words the best moments of a love in all knowledge of its loss. Can you imagine how something must die in you forever even as you write in this way the dead to life?

I shall not – must never – write such love poems again because of how much they took from me, how much they have aged my soul. I cannot say whether I can survive making another book like this. I am not sure how Christina Rossetti or Pablo Neruda does it.

Love is a monstrous mystery; it lures us into its cave to devour us – yet we go with it willingly. If you will make a simple comparison between love and hate, love’s presumed opposite, you will realise that the two are never equals. Love and hate do not operate under the same terms. We all know very well why we hate a particular person, much better than we can ever understand why we love someone.

Love is something bigger, more than our unit-selves. It is like the poetry of which two people surprisingly find themselves the subject. But this is just another way of saying what Plato had observed in the Symposium long ago, how, at the touch of love, everyone would become a poet.[3] Love moves us from the private to the intimate and yet keeps us away from the social: in this sense, love is poetry but not quite or not yet knowledge.

But, if love is poetry, then what is poetry? This bit is more difficult to explain, and we may perhaps simply consider poetry in terms of the complex passions it raises in us: a form of joy, sadness, anger, pain, boredom, ambivalence, and so on. Love – by making us poets, by putting the poetry into us – makes us feel ourselves as more than who we normally are. Indeed, Voltaire argued that love was “of all the passions the strongest” precisely because it could involve the head, the heart, and the senses all at the same time.[4]

Love subverts the physicality by which we know ourselves or are known to others by making that inadequate, irrelevant. It creates a real dissonance, a lack of equivalence, between how we feel and how we appear to others or how others appear to us. William Shakespeare’s Cleopatra therefore famously pines for her lover Antony in these words:

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres.[5]

What I want to highlight with this – the first of three observations I will offer to you and hope that you can take away today – is how similar love’s mode of exaggeration, of failing correspondence with the observed world, is to the love poem. My first point is not a mere argument about the nature of love but also about the nature of poetry. Indeed, love poetry is already a doubling, being hyper-referential of the life of poetry to itself; it is the poetry of poetry. Was it James Joyce who said in Ulysses (1922): “Love loves to love love”?[6]

My own short poem “Yonsei” should illustrate this point of a natural doubling by being, at casual glance, not about love. “Yonsei” describes the first leaf-fall of a Korean autumn and how nature is freeing itself into the unknown by embracing self-belief. And yet here it all is too, the elements that make this only about love:

Words like ginkgo leaves
are freeing themselves

They are seized
by invisible feelings
to take flight against
a certainty of change
in individual

Each sets a time
to twist away like a
yellow hand unclasping,
sinks into a floor of words
golden under streetlights.[7]

Secondly, the point cannot be neglected that to write a love poem is to have entered implicitly into a pact with language to be genuine and, as such, vulnerable. Note that I say how this pact is with language and not with the beloved because that is what it truly serves. Young poets tend to make the mistake here. In a love poem, one agrees to lay oneself on what I talked of just before as “the floor of words”, with all the risk this brings of being loved or being hurt – or both.

Here then is an interesting way through which we may distinguish the love poet. Unlike all other poets’ works, the verse of a love poet cannot set out to demonstrate his or her mastery over the poetic craft as a validation of the self. To do so would almost be an instant tragedy since any move to protect the self at first instinct, to lose sight of another who keeps the heart open, closes the flower of love. It does not simply stop the transaction of feelings; it also casts any attempt to go on as awkward, inauthentic, or, worst, opportunistic.

This does not mean, however, that the love poet exercises little to no mastery at all and is a mere effusion of exaggerated or hyperbolic emotions. He or she is not all heart and no head. Rather, such a poet trains himself or herself in a different kind of control, working hard to make the feeling voice fragile. The love poet is such a glassmaker, a builder of a glass house and not a house of brick and mortar.

This mastery of fragility is a curious power of the love poet: his or her practice asserts greater strength singularly through greater weakness. In this light, more than other kinds of poets, a love poet commands the feelings of his or her works by being highly aware of the physicality or harshness of his or her voice and by therefore directing and managing it all from behind a façade.

I recognise at once that I am already involving a contradiction as the point here is to be vulnerable – whereas I am putting forward the thought that even this vulnerability begins as a craft. But a poet’s first responsibility is to the accuracy of his or her writing’s sentiment, new or strange as it may be, and the love poet’s vulnerability thus does not come before his or her creation of a way to be genuinely vulnerable. The delicate authorial control in a love poem is a distinct skill of revealing and concealing, of concealing one’s direction and management of feelings in order that the poem can reveal better, confess better, the free voice of love.

I certainly struggled a lot with this paradox of the genre when I was writing the self-explanatory poem “Post”. Such a work could not have been more authentic in feeling if I had not found, in deliberate wordplay, the means to recreate the sense of loving as a poignant game of swift actions and long waits. This game is especially true with long-distance relationships:

Post is a prefix:
as in after, over, behind
written as a before:
as in post-hoc, post-mortem, postscript.
Post is what I send you again, anew,
posting on the event post-event:
me in Wonju, you in Seoul, then
Clementi, me in Cape Town, Paju,
you in Ulaanbaatar…
Post is on its way,
arriving before it is received,
often missing its mark,
at times received by another.
Have you received my post?
My postcards, in the post:
wild animals, merlions, temples,
colonial districts, mountaintops,
exotic food and phrases,
postage also affixed to place:
what done, perhaps to do again,
to fix backwards and forwards,
Post-Ited, postmarked.
Your postcards are pre-marked,
arriving in compact boxes
with honey, chamomile, ginseng,
health supplements, even smaller boxes:
my boxes cradle Boh tea, pencils,
a stuffed pony that gallops backwards
to times we have loved pre-post:
in post offices, we are
posting boxes while apart
or when together, I waiting for you.
In the same vein, postboxes
which you love, find, pose with
everywhere we visit or you without me,
later sending me a photo.
Have you received my post?
Here are a few photos on Skype.
Waiting once again,
waiting within waiting:
photos as posts, of posts,
boxes, postcards, aerogrammes:
photos taken before and after
of stuff looking completely the same
pre-post, post-post:
there is no knowing mid-post
which is, in fact, post at its purest,
vicarious desiring at both ends.
When post arrives, the middle days fall out:
they vanish once the postman rings or knocks:
I hear him arrive behind another door
at your apartment,
at different apartments,
at an older address, my father’s:
father and others
passing our posts one to another to another,
a great chain aggregating destinies:
there was a postman who won a prize
because you wrote of how well
he delivered his posts, others’, mine,
eventually all yours:
destiny within destiny.
Post is at the door of our destiny,
at our outermost entrances and exits,
holding up for the next post, the after
written as a before:
post, the delivery of romance,
a prefixing balling
between us two only:
post always about two persons
living so much of themselves,
ourselves, in suspension.[8]

So, as I have argued and demonstrated, something about the authenticity or believability in a presentation of love requires the love poet to reveal his or her loss of control, his or her vulnerability. Exaggeration and outpouring of emotions, in fact, tend to define the genre precisely because these are easy ways to hint at some inner loosening or undoing. Yet, underlying it all is also a mastery that must hide itself even as it aims for some dangerous subverting or undermining of self.

There is one way through which we often judge whether a love poem has been successful, and that is by whether a private abyss has opened up and been left self-destructively for another’s gaze. The love poem indeed exists at this point of critical imbalance. It possesses its own wounding, a means by which it can be sensed how any attempt on the poet’s part to control may well exist but is ultimately ineffectual.

My final observation on romantic verse is therefore this, and you may have seen it coming: although I have said that love poetry is a poetry of poetry, still, at some fundamental level, this is also a poetry against poetry. In love poems, the aspects of poetry collapse on themselves, and this is how it perceives itself as becoming more than other forms of more measured, reflective verse. The fountainhead of poetry runs against the craft of poetry and seems to overwhelm it like how a waterfall rushes over the rocks protruding through it.

Thus, at the same time as we say that love poetry is the quintessence of poetry, we must also stress the paradox inherent to love poetry that it should even exist! The truth of a love poem threatens its own point of utterance, the fragile speaker. The fragility of this speaking is a muscle that breaks against the pressure to see form or voice first as poetic while, all the time, the form of this poem is being consumed by a voicing, a thinking. The love poem is in such a danger of its own collapse, of being in love with non-being, the potential for which is fundamental.

As such, we must come back to note again that the writing of love poems always involves dying, first and foremost to the one who is being addressed or showered with love. What the love poet is saying by writing, through the text’s othering of himself or herself, is that he or she loves by leaving the private self – the one true possession – open, by leaving a part or trace of it behind as text.

This point stands even without heartbreak or mourning being involved yet in a relationship because, in love, whether we know it or not, what we are choosing is the freedom to hurt ourselves. There is no loving without death. Because of the openness of text, a love poem is such an eternal bleed.

At the close of my lecture, I want to read to you what is also the last poem in One Thousand and One Nights, its only poem written after the breakup. This piece is included here not just as my way of concluding the narrative of a linear romantic adventure that frames the book. It is also a way to express my understanding that every love affair is built on the promise of the future of itself. The Jumok is the Korean yew tree, a long-living tree known to last centuries and even millienia. The Koreans have a custom where one wishes under a Jumok as a mark that one intends to keep a promise.

Lost love is such an affront against nature and culture. It is the quintessential broken vow through which one chooses a selfish present by losing sight of a future and denying the memories of a better believing self. This poem is called “Jumok Our Promise”:

Hide with me
as evening grows.
Our shadow is large
and can endure

In it, you will find
Jumok our promise,
its leaves and stars
unbraiding from
a single trunk.

A sudden snowflake,
a clover of lips –
everything we hid
away under
a cracked moon.[9]

Perhaps now you know a little why I say that I cannot write another book like this again. Thank you for being attentive.

Gwee Li Sui

[1] Stendhal, Love, trans. Gilbert and Suzanne Sale (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 51.

[2] Gwee Li Sui, One Thousand and One Nights (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2014), 28-29.

[3] Plato, Symposium 196e.

[4] Voltaire, Le Dernier Volume Des Œuvres De Voltaire: Contes – Comédie – Pensées – Poésies – Lettres (Paris: Henri Plon, 1862), 192.

[5] William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra 5.2.81-83.

[6] James Joyce, Ulysses (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009), 319.

[7] Gwee, One Thousand and One Nights 24.

[8] Gwee, One Thousand and One Nights 53-55.

[9] Gwee, One Thousand and One Nights 74.


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