Truths about love
In the summer of 1994, Random House brought out a slim volume called Tell Me the Truth About Love. Inspired by the success of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, which featured a recitation of W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” this collection of 10 Auden poems could also be bought on cassette, each poem read by actor John Hannah, just like in the movie. I bought that version the minute I saw it, back in graduate school, and I loved the sound of Hannah’s rich, Scottish voice smiling through the start of the title poem:
Some say love’s a little boy,
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world go around,
Some say that’s absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn’t do.
The wit and accessibility of this piece shows Auden’s fondness for the sorts of popular poetry that flourished in the shadow of Modernism: light verse, blues and calypso lyrics, and the songs of musical theater. The ’20s and ’30s were a great age for these—think Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Lorenz Hart, Dorothy Fields—and Auden rose to that challenge, gleefully risking absurdity for the sake of an unexpected rhyme:
Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
As the collection goes on, you find the poet getting more serious. There aren’t many poems in the language as hauntingly intellectual as the lullaby, “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm,” put to music recently by jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux, nor as invitingly thoughtful as the ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening,” where ideas about Eros and Agape stroll through a landscape of story, scripture, gnomic wisdom, and echoes of nursery rhyme:
‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’
To read these poems fresh out of graduate school—or, better still, to listen to them, till the cassette was wrinkled and worn—was to remember that the boundaries of high and low culture have often been porous where love is concerned. You never quite know where a truth about love will be found.
I had a new reminder of that fact just this week, when my YouTube browser suggested I watch “Try,” a single by the pop-rock singer Pink (or, to be precise, P!nk), written by busbee and Ben West, from her new album, The Truth About Love.
The video for “Try” features two dancers, male (Colt Prattes) and female (the singer herself) whose pas-de-deux veers without warning from attraction to loathing, eroticism to brutality. They’re gorgeous, barely dressed, a pleasure to watch, but the moves evoke some scary stuff. As a Billboard piece about it explains,
“Try” has two settings: a bare, one-floor house, and a sunny mountainside. Both allow P!nk and her man. . . to engage in heart-wringing physical movements, from tossing each other on a stripped mattress to hovering on one another’s shoulders, in total solitude, while neon paint fills their bare skin. The climax of the music video comes when kitchen chairs are thrown, and suddenly the pair, understanding how much they need each other, run forward for an eventual embrace.
That description makes the ending seem too easy—the “embrace” looks more like a collision, bodies about to slam together with no consolation in sight.
Other recent videos explore the risk implicit in erotic love, or at least some versions of it. Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” (feat. Rihanna) comes to mind—but that clip takes a straightforward storytelling approach to the song, while the “Try” clip, directed by Floria Sigismondi, steps back from its material, letting the stylized forms of the bodies in motion suggest and elaborate ideas about desire, violence, and romance. (Billboard reports that the choreography is by The Golden Boyz (RJ Durell and Nick Florez) with additional stunt choreography by Sebastien Stella.) All the while, the song’s melody leaps and spirals down into a disillusioned, determined, grimly catchy chorus:
Where there is desire
There is gonna be a flame
Where there is a flame
Someone’s bound to get burned
But just because it burns
Doesn’t mean you’re gonna die
You’ve gotta get up and try, try, try
Is that “try” to love in the face of this truth? “Try” to love again, better next time? The song doesn’t say—a smart, provocative refusal.
What a thoughtful art popular romance can be, telling us truths about love!
Eric Selinger is a professor of English at DePaul University, co-editor of New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, and executive editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. Find out more about Eric Selinger.