January 31st, 2018
I didn’t blog last week. I was thinking.
About Neruda. And that was because I was thinking about Burns.
I was not thinking about their poetry.
When I met my partner just a few years ago, one of the first things he gave me was a book of Neruda’s love poems. Since his reading (at the time) was largely restricted to non-fiction and Dan Brown, it meant a great deal to me. He’d done his homework. But just a few months later I saw an article about newly uncovered letters, in which Neruda boasted about raping a woman.
The Neruda poems just sit there on my shelf now. And every few months, I notice them, and consider tossing the book in the trash. When we were looking for poems for our wedding ceremony, he suggested we look through the volume of Neruda’s love poems.
In the end, my best friend chose a read a poem for the ceremony: Naomi Shihab Nye’s “So Much Happiness”.
The following year, a group of our friends threw us a wonderful anniversary dinner party in a communal garden. The evening was filled with poetry. One of the highlights was our Scottish friend reciting “A Red, Red Rose” with his beautiful, softly percussive accent.
This month our Scottish friend and his wife hosted a Burns Supper. Such a cool thing to do: bagpipes, haggis and poetry. Great company. I was thrilled to get the invitation, and I brushed up on my Burns.
And regretted it.
At the dinner, our hostess was amazing. She is savvy and elegant, and she managed to bring up the dilemma of celebrating Burns in the atmosphere of our #MeToo culture, without ruining the evening.
In case you haven’t seen the articles circulating last week: Burns also left a letter — in which he boasted about raping his pregnant wife on a bed of horseshit in the barn.
Over the years, I have been quick to say that I can separate the person from the artwork. Once they are dead. (I will watch Woody Allen’s films after he is dead.) Both these letter-writers are dead. Have been dead for a while. So it shouldn’t matter.
But I can’t shake this feeling.
And I have had a little epiphany: the realization that this feeling I can’t shake is shame, actually. Somehow, somewhere along the way, my body has conflated feelings of anger and shame into one monster emotion that lurks in the closet.
And in the shared — then ignored — stories that are shared on social media.
Part of my personal definition of art is that an art object conveys the experience of being human, in a recognizable way. That’s it.
But then there is that other idea: that artworks are ennobling. When biographical facts color and contextualize the experience that is being conveyed through a work of art in a way that is exceedingly human, but not ennobling, do we toss the bibliographical context (and does that falsify the content?). Or do we toss the work of art?
Burns and Neruda are still on my shelf. And when I glance at them, my body still vibrates with a conflated emotional state — that is being human.