In my younger and more vulnerable years (read: freshman year) I learned that college kids like to go on dates. This was a revelation for me considering the 18-year-long romantic desert I had just escaped from. Like many in my shoes, I had no idea what I was doing, and I almost immediately made a fool of myself.
My first college crush lived on my dorm floor, way down the hall. After a few months of glances, we started hanging out more and more. After a few more months, we went on a single date. And suddenly the floodgates of my heart opened and I couldn’t stop them and I wanted to tell her everything and I wanted to fall in love.
She was, understandably, not into that. Inexperienced in the art of casual dating, I did not land gracefully. Instead I tucked myself away and wrote poems.
The bad kind. The kind that would be ink-smeared and tear-stained if they weren’t written on a laptop. The kind with lines about her nose and her eyes and her smile. The boy band lyrics of poetry.
But, in a weird way, writing helped. And it also helped the next time. And the next. I felt trapped in an endless cycle of embarrassing social blunders and even more embarrassing verse.
Francesco Petrarch broke this cycle. Petrarch was a 14th-century father of the sonnet whose work I was forced to read in class. Over the course of his life, Petrarch wrote 366 sonnets for a single women named Laura, who he likely only met once. Initially, I found this romantic and heartbreaking — an extreme manifestation of love and pain. But when I actually read his work, I realized that his project was creepier than it was heartbreaking.
Petrarch was writing for an illusion — for his own idealized image of a person he didn’t even know.
But I didn’t think much of it until my professor drew attention to a method that Petrarch used to describe his distant Laura. When he praised “the light quenched of your beautiful eyes, / and the golden hair spun fine as silver, / and the garland laid aside and the green clothes, / and the delicate face” he described Laura like a painting, obsessing over visual details but neglecting everything beneath them.
This technique is a kind of poetic dismemberment. Poets like Petrarch loved to pick their muses apart, churning out line upon line on her eyes, her lips and her hair while conveniently forgetting to mention what she might have been like as an actual intact person.
Needless to say, this lesson hit way too close to home. Distraught, I read back through the poems I was so proud of and found the same tropes, right there as if they were written 600 years ago. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t really writing love poetry. I was trying to use my words to trap the people who had hurt me. I had thought that if I could contain their noses and their eyes and their smiles in the perfect poem, then maybe I could keep them from disappearing. But all I was really doing was trying to control them.
With distaste I thought back to previous dates, to moments when I had thought of nice metaphors for a woman’s smile before the date was even over. Words were like a veil that prevented me from really seeing anybody the way they deserved to be seen. I had let my obsession with myself as a poet infect me to my marrow. I deleted a lot of poems that night. It was like ripping off a band-aid, painful and cathartic.
My life changed when I met a girl that I couldn’t write about. After some Tinder chat and an awkward first date, I knew something was different about her. I looked at her mouth and it was beautiful, but I didn’t feel the urge to force another bland metaphor about flowers onto it. Her eyes were just eyes. Pretty ones. Not sapphires, or the sun, or the sea, but a pair of kind, striking eyes. I felt a kind of freedom when I realized that I could leave old habits behind me.
But I still wanted to write her something. This time as a gift rather than as a selfish exercise of “unrequited love.” But even that didn’t come easy. First I tried writing about the striped shirt she had worn on our first date, but it ended up hilarious and corny. Then I tried to write about her face, but the way she looked wouldn’t fit into my words. She surpassed them somehow.
I sat staring at a blank document and, after an hour, all I could muster was a single, honest line: “Impossible to write you down.”
Anthony writes the Monday column on literature and life. Contact him at [email protected].