By Imogen Hamilton-Jones
Google is matter-of-fact about the symptoms of heartbreak. Exhaustion; muscle tightness; insomnia; loss of appetite. Beneath these bullet points it coolly notes how ‘People also ask’: ‘Can you be so sad that you die?’, ‘Why does emotional pain physically hurt?’, ‘Is Broken Heart Syndrome Real?’ The insistently capitalised ‘Real’ of this final plea is a clue the slippery nature of heartbreak – both an abstract cliché of the artistic imagination, and a very real state of suffering, grounded specifically in each of our everyday lives.
As the lights went down in an airy studio upstairs at the Royal Opera House, and Mariah Gale began, slowly and precisely, to read Pablo Neruda’s ‘Tonight I Can Write’, I’m sure I was not alone in feeling a lump forming in my throat. Tense muscles and prickly eyes asserted themselves as an exquisite selection of poems and arias unfolded into the space. These were peppered with insights on heartbreak from academic and critic Shahidha Bari (passing on Peggy Reynolds’ thoughts in her absence), poet Max Wallis and Associate Director of the Royal Opera House, John Fulljames.
They asked some weighty questions: what is at work in poems and operas about heartbreak? Why are there so many of them? What makes audiences choose to spend evenings crying in dark auditoriums? And, a warning to the hopeless romantics penning verse among us, what makes bad poetry about heartbreak? Where is the line between poignant confession and clichéd self-indulgence?
Early on, Shahidha suggested that art about heartbreak is driven by our need to contain the chaos of human emotion – to somehow master the messiness of heartbreak by composing it and mediating it through artistic form. This is compelling – sitting anonymously in an opera house, I can let the achingly tragic arias of La Traviata wash over me, but the curtain falls after its allotted 3 hours 25 mins, and I can walk away, emotionally wrung out but cleansed.
Consider it a kind of therapy- catharsis on demand – on offer perhaps to composers and performers too. Watching an opera singer perform an aria from La Traviata in this intimate setting, stripped-back with just piano accompaniment, showed how the technical discipline of opera singing neatly restricts the singer’s ability to surrender emotionally, and personally, to heartbreak. Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ enacts this process methodically: writing the poem is an exercise in control – as she ritualistically reassures herself “the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
But I’m not sure this is enough to explain the power of the poems and arias we heard. Art doesn’t insulate us from the chaos of lived experience, it interacts with it. Max Wallis described poetry as full of possibilities and freedom – not just diary, recording and externalising emotion. The poems performed, from Tennyson to Plath, didn’t neatly contain heartbreak, they brought us up close to its immensity and complexity, its possibilities.
They worked in surprising ways – through lightness and humour, as well as though deeply, darkly expressive rhythms. Rhythms which resonated musically, like the arias, with our primitive, physical response to hearts aching and breaking.
Something most of them had in common was a degree of self-awareness. Perhaps that helped distinguish them from bad heartbreak poems. A poem like Jacob Sam-La Rose’s ‘Things That Could Happen’, which assesses preemptive heartache, realises the absurdities of emotional angst. Among fantasy disaster proposals, for example, the poem imagines that ‘His heart bursts in his mouth before he can say the words./It splatters the table, ruins her dress, and she never forgives him.’
More soberly, ‘Washington Mews’, by Rowan Ricardo Phillips, describes a specific, personal moment on a street, just after his (now ex-) lover, walks away, almost turns, and walks on:
And that was when, well, that’s just when
You know: You will always be what you were
On that small street at that small time, right when
She left and Pluto sudsed your throat and said,
Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche
Tú la quisiste, y a veces ella también te quiso.
This is the second half of a tightly controlled sonnet, but it doesn’t reassuringly contain its emotion. Instead it gestures outwards, to another poem, the original Spanish of the Neruda poem which opened our evening.
This mingling of a ‘Real’ moment of heartache, and an expression of heartache from poetry, suggests that perhaps our experiences of heartache in life and in art overlap. Just as poems and arias mimic ‘Real’ heartache, heartache in reality imitates, inevitably, the versions of heartache we see dramatized on the stage of the opera, or between the pages of a book of poetry.
This evening showed us that art about heartache amounts to much more than therapeutic catharsis. Poems can’t mend our broken hearts – as far as I’m concerned, they only seem to make heartbreak feel more overwhelming.
The poetry and music we heard probably made most of the audience think, with some level of bittersweet nostalgia, of past or present heartaches in our own lives. But as the performances unfolded, we could sense how these small, personal dramas were connected to a vast web of artistic impressions, good and bad, funny and sad, immense and complex. Perhaps that’s what made it hard to walk away from this enthralling evening of performance without lumps in our throats.