Friday, July 29, 2016

Sonnets and Long-Distance Marriage

If marriage is made of poetry then long-distance marriage is a sonnet.

You’ve had your limericks, your haikus, your ballads– perhaps your whole marriage is an epic in the making– but now you’re six thousand miles apart, and your marriage is a sonnet.

A sonnet is “one of the oldest, strictest, and most enduring poetic forms.”*

Rule 1 of long-distance marriage: realize that you are not the first to go through it.

As long as there has been war– which is as long as there has been evil in the human heart– which is however long it has been since the betrayal in Eden– there have been men leaving and women bidding them farewell. The tears you shed at parting are the offspring of generations of weeping wives, mothers, daughters, sweethearts. In your loneliness you stand one in a multitude, a whole world’s history of women who have watched their men out of sight and wrestled with the silent, screaming fear, “Will he come back?” The sonnet is old and and has endured. Millenia of marriages have been tested by parting, and they have endured. And so will yours.

A sonnet’s structure is strict: fourteen lines, either three quatrains and a couplet (the English sonnet) or an octave and a sestet (the Italian sonnet.)

Rule 2 of long-distance marriage: understand the limitations.

Your marriage has been many things up to this point. The daily tasks. All the times your husband has come home in the evening and taken charge of the baby while you finish making dinner. A sunset walk. An argument. The joys of making love. A theological discussion. Your favorite movie together. Hearing him play his guitar while you write in the living room. Your marriage is these moments and thousands more, each its own distinct part, a jewel in the mosaic of the whole. But now you must realize that things have changed, and for this time of distance, your togetherness is defined by one thing alone: conversation. It is all you have. Conversation is literally everything. You can resist this limit, of course; you can buck and squirm, you can passionately resent it, and you probably will, for a time. When you have worn yourself out, wishing for all things you used to do together that are now impossible, then you may embrace the structure and begin to learn how to make your marriage good during this time… how to write a good sonnet.

A sonnet is not a ballad. It does not tell a story: it is a poem that expresses a single idea, or else in the Italian sonnet, an “argument” with the sestet bringing a “resolution.”

Rule 3 of long-distance marriage: your theme is simply “I miss you.”

Once you have submitted to the fact that the single marital activity open to you and your absent husband is conversation, you will be tempted to try to extract all the intimacy inherent in all those mosaic moments from before he left, and try to infuse that intimacy into every one of your conversations together. You will feel that every conversation ought to be deep and intimate and soul-baring. This may be natural, but you are doomed to disappointment. Conversation can be deep and intimate and soul-baring, of course, but in fact most of the time it isn’t. Most of the time it’s quite ordinary, as ordinary as doing the dishes or going for a walk. To expect otherwise is to put unbearable pressure on both of you– it’s trying to tell a story in a sonnet. The form just isn’t suited to that. Consider this instead: it’s all right for most of your conversations to be ordinary. It’s quite all right that most of them are simple variations on the theme of “I miss you.” Let your words be ordinary, and the soul-baring conversations will happen when they may, unforced, and be all the more intimate for it.

A good sonnet is a beautiful poem. A well crafted sonnet is a work of art, and this is not in spite of the required structure but because of it.

Rule 4 for long-distance marriage: you can choose to believe that the Author of your marriage will craft something beautiful out of this time apart.

You can choose to believe that the distance is a mistake, a clerical error. Or you can choose to believe that in all the loneliness of separation, the creeping by of the days that you tick off on the calendar, the tears you cry into your pillow at night because you miss the man who ought to be in bed next to you, Something Bigger is going on. There is Somebody at work, though you might not see Him. You feel the struggle with words that don’t seem to fit together and a meter that seems jerky and unnatural and rhymes that don’t fall into place. You can choose to believe that this is all part of the creative struggle, that the end result will be a poem in your marriage that will be beautiful. A work of art never comes easily, and neither will the art of this long-distance marriage.

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

-John Keats

* From "Learning the Sonnet" by Rachel Richardson 

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