Sunday, May 07, 2006

Isosceles Koan

When Beverly and I gave a reading last week, someone asked me afterward what had made me want to write a long (almost 20-page) poem about an early 20th century Czech composer, Leoš Janáček. I made a rather lame response about how powerfully Janáček’s music had affected me, but the question got me thinking.

The poem is really about a romantic (if—possibly—platonic) triangle Janáček was involved in during the last several years of his life. On the one hand, the question of what inspired me to write the poem implies that while these characters interested me enough to write the poem, that interest didn’t come through for at least one listener. On the other hand, I’m tempted to ask in response, “What didn’t interest you?” From Helen of Troy to Antony and Cleopatra to Anna Karenina to, well, Brokeback Mountain, “triangles” have always been one of the most compelling themes in art.

The only question is why the subject is so compelling, and the answer I come up with is that everyone on earth can relate to the feeling of being torn in two different directions. We’re not all torn between two different loves, and in fact many people find that a self-indulgent form of soap opera. While I’m not ready to dismiss Anna Karenina as high-brow soap opera, there are people who would.

But we’re all torn in two. Maybe it’s between working on a poem and taking our kids to the park, or between political action and weeding our garden, or between spending time with a friend and paying the rent—often, in the largest sense, between love and work. Even though romantic triangles may be a particularly self-indulgent form of conflict, I think in art they become a metaphor for all these larger conflicts in our lives.

The value of focusing on romantic triangles in art is that they are particularly hard to gloss over. We probably spend most of our lives in denial when it comes to the other conflicts in our lives, convincing ourselves we have resolved them. We’ve found a balance point that works. Our kids understand that we go into our room every Saturday morning to write but will emerge on Saturday afternoon to be with them. Or our whole family marches against the war and, voila! no conflict between politics and family.

The thing about a love triangle is that, like a Zen koan, it is absolutely impossible to resolve. It doesn’t allow you to relax in the complacent illusion that you’re in control of your life and know what you’re doing. And if you do relax in that illusion, one of the other people involved, like a good editor, can be counted on to force you to cut the crap. No, I’m not recommending triangles as a way of life, but I do think they’ve been a compelling subject for poetry for thousands of years because they’re a crucible that forces painful truths into the light.


C. Dale said...


Radish King said...

Oh, I would love to read this poem! I love Janáček's music and as soon as I read his name here, I heard the cymbalom in my head that he so adored.

I have been caught up in the Schumann, Clara Weick, Brahms triangle since forever and have written papers and theses and taught master classes on them.

What obsesses us, is what obsesses us. What drives us into art.

Robert said...

You must know Lisel Mueller’s poem about Johannes and Clara!

Diane K. Martin said...

I didn't think I had anything to add, but I was just thinking: the difference between writing a poem about an unresolved "triangle," as Robert puts it -- or a longing that stays longing -- as opposed to creating a similar situation in a soap opera or even good fiction, is that in poetry you don't have to resolve it. You can stay in the longing. The gun need never go off.

Radish King said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Radish King said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
peg said...

Great topic. I didn't want to personally hijack this discussion so I talked about it a little more on my blog (
I think Diane is right about the poem being different from fiction in allowing the dynamic of the triangle to remain in a way that can't happen in fiction (most, anyhow).