The educated reader of today is certainly aware that love poetry appeals to the popular taste, and probably wonders occasionally if there is a critical, definitional connection between love and poetry.

But we have never seen the case made philosophically.

Love and poetry both belong, generally, to social, polite behavior, and love is an endless source of interest—all writing, laws, and human behavior revolve around love—and though we could expand on love’s definition, and include things like marriage, divorce, prostitution, and abortion, what we really mean by “love” here is courtship or Romanticism—what we usually mean when we refer to the love poem.

Forgetting the fact that “love” is a source of interest in itself, the question: are love and poetry good for each other? Aesthetically? Scientifically? Is the question I want to ask.

I don’t know if recent history can help us—20th century Modernist poetry was famous as a movement which chucked the “hearts and flowers” of 19th century poetry (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”)—but Modernists would be quick to point out that their revolution was not to consciously reject love poetry, but to simply expand poetry’s subject matter.

But hadn’t Byron, in his popular long poems, already done that? Byron wrote his share of love poetry, but he published two long poems, to much acclaim, which chattered on, in verse, about everything under the sun.

Perhaps it is best not to get embroiled in changes of fashion and taste; poets proclaim “revolution” mostly to get attention; I wish to ponder the twin existence of love and poetry in a purely scientific manner.

My entrance into solving the puzzle began when I seized upon a quote which I have thought about many times before—a pithy remark made by a non-poet philosopher from the 19th century. John Stuart Mill, in a rather brilliant, and today, mostly ignored, essay, defined “eloquence” as that which “supposes an audience” and is “heard,” while poetry, its “antithesis,” is “overheard.”

And thanks to John Stuart Mill (epitome of English, liberal, worldly genius) I think it is possible to explain, scientifically, why poetry and love are suited to each other to an extreme degree—despite the fact, that the educated, reasonable person will invariably insist, “A poem can be about anything! The poetry is what finally counts, produced by the poet as a whole person—there is no reason to defend any narrowly defined subject matter!”

Mill’s quote reveals a crucial distinction—we have “subject matter” (what the poem is “about”) on one hand, but there is something else just as important—the conveyance of the “subject matter”—is it “heard” by an “audience,” or is it “overheard?”

And upon this distinction, the great mystery is revealed.

If poetry is that which is “overheard,” and not “eloquence” which  is “heard” by an “audience,” this fact, which does appear to be an important truth, a truth which exists apart from “subject matter,” is that which truly defines and narrows poetry.

For what is it, but the talk of passionate lovers, which is “overheard?”

By contrast, the usual discourse of numerous subjects, declaimed to an “audience,” is not poetry—how often do we read “poems” which are arguments made for “the world,” the “audience” who represent the “world,” assembled to hear the wisdom of the legislator or the sermonizer—and without being able to put our finger on it, the “argument” put on display by the poet, fails to move us, sounds pompous, too obvious, too calculated to convince, too direct and transparent in the manner it speaks to us? (Or poets, wisely fleeing from pomposity, nevertheless err by blindly seeking what they feel is the opposite—the trivial and the obscure, which also disappoints.)

The lover who is “overheard,” on the other hand, comes from a place of shame, of flawed desire,  of subjective anguish and despondency, and is not meant to convince at all, but is like a “scene” or “drama” which we witness by accident, and for that reason, is more nuanced, more original, more driven by accident and the problematically unique, more embellished by subjective seeing—which turns out to be a more lively way of seeing!—more mysterious, more emotional, more cloudy, and yet more clear (because we are seeing what we weren’t supposed to see) and where the inability to explain is the very thing which explains.

All this—shame, subjectivity, cloudiness, confusion, negative capability, beauty for its own sake, urgency for its own sake—is it not felt and spoken most strongly by love? Or hate, which is the partner of love, since both belong to passionate, subjective intercourse, alive to what is most important to the slightly confused individual?

None of this would be tolerated by an audience assembled for instruction, or any sort of worldly rhetoric meant to clarify or solve an issue. Imagine a speaker on How To Recover From Alcohol Addiction speaking passionately about the pleasures of intoxication—and only that. It would either be taken as a joke, or seen as something foolish and dangerous.

Poetry will never solve alcohol addiction. Poetry is alcohol addiction.

Addiction is what we “overhear;” when we see a person, not wearing a public dress, not prepared for public disquisition, being an addict. The poem is for the shamed and covert “addict,” not for the convert seeking sobriety, not for the one seeking to expose the dangers of addiction.

Not for public consumption is the celebrity secretly glimpsed in their bathroom. And exactly so, is the poem an overheard document—which appeals to curiosity alone.

Curiosity alone! How much of human interaction belongs to this?

But the snare is not the same as the treat.

Poetry is “overheard” and this defines it absolutely.

The disgusting and the appalling, not proper for a general audience, is also “overheard.”

But love ensures the poem will be something else—not meant to be heard, and yet, the most beautiful thing (we never should have heard it) we have ever known.


  1. Jolein said,

    November 4, 2018 at 8:51 pm

    Thomas, I’d like to share some challenges of my own with you, if you don’t mind me doing such, for I can’t quite wrap my head around some certain notions yet:

    What should I make out of the following part of one of your sentences?:
    “…. the poet as a whole person…..”

    When is it we do say one is whole as a person in contrast to being the opposite [i.e. being not-whole as a person]?

    And when we do say such things then what do we mean with saying such things [i.e. that one is, or is not, ‘whole as a person’]?

    The conception ‘to be whole as a person’ is such a mysterious (and yet familiar) notion to me…, for what would qualify and warrent as making the claim ‘one is being whole as a person’, and, would this be different from making the claim ‘the poet is whole as a person’?
    Perhaps it’s better to phrase it this way: why would one say such a thing about oneself or another etcetera?

    PS: I certainly adore your – thoughts – poetry!

    • thomasbrady said,

      November 5, 2018 at 4:06 pm

      Thank you, Jolein,

      I used “the poet as a whole person” as a typical, common sense objection to any gambit which attempts to “narrow” poetry in any way, as Poe did (the Modernists objected strenuously) both in his practice and theory. I am not prepared to defend or define “poet as a whole person;” I was only using it as typical hearsay, though it sounds like an attractive and sensible term. The poem, if we are to define it, is a thing with its own qualities; the “whole person” who writes it really should have nothing to do with it at all, because as you point out, what is a “whole person?”


      • Jolein said,

        November 6, 2018 at 3:05 pm

        Thanks for replying Tom, – so, I’m like a baby – when it comes to poems – poetry – to all you seem to know by heart, but still is, still remains to be, a mystery to me; where to begin; which books to read; which questions to ask…?

        Which discussion are you referring to, I’m wondering….?

        • thomasbrady said,

          November 8, 2018 at 10:20 pm

          “Which discussion are you referring to…” The essay above ” Why Love?” If that’s what you mean.

          We’re all babies when it comes to poetry.

          You shouldn’t be intimidated. Those who seem to “know” are just faking it. So you are either much wiser than you let on, or you are faking that you are faking it.

          I first fell in love with the Romantic poets, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and then a took a class as an undergraduate which was Philosophy of Literary Criticism from Plato to T.S. Eliot.

          The best introduction is loving something. If you don’t love it, forget it. If you do. Learn more about what a poem is, by looking at it from other angles—other poems, criticism, philosophy. Talk about your favorite poem in every conceivable way and if you quickly run out of things to say, the love isn’t really there. That’s all it is. Love plus blah blah blah. Anyone can do the blah blah blah. It’s the love that matters.

          • Jolein said,

            November 9, 2018 at 12:41 am

            Wow! You’re giving me a lot to think about, especially so, for I’m kind of confused by my own replies at this moment. Anyways, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll think about it, and hopefully remember what it was I was looking for in the first place. When I’ll find it again –the thing I was looking for – I’ll get back at you.

          • Jolein said,

            November 9, 2018 at 11:11 am

            So, I wrote this down when I remembered why I wrote my second and third comment:
            “Wait a second, I remember, I was wondering whom it was he was opposing, and whether or not he had aligned himself according to a certain “school of thought” since his poetry reminded me of the way Alexander of Aphrodite opposed his comtemporary rivals i.e, by referencing certain notions or ideas which should make sense to those familiar with the canon, but nonetheless a mystery to those unfamiliar with the canon (like me).

            Hence I got the sense it meant something more to him then it did to me, as if, there was more to it then what meets the avarage eye i.e., it felt like I was missing the clue; but, that seems somewhat paradoxical, for the clue was there is no clue, right? Since poetry is “overheard”.”

            But, I already got an answer to my wondering in that regard, I believe, since you love the ‘Romantic movement’, and after having read Wikipedia on the Modernists (in my defense I love Wikipedia and in the end it’s all about the loving :), well categories andere names start to make sense at least.

            So I’ll share one other thought I wrote down (don’t take it personal though – although – you did kept me awake you know..)

            “Another thing that kind of bothers me is the fact he argues, or, no, it rather lacks arguments; his poetry contains all kinds of judgments, yet it rather lacks reasoning, it merely claims a lot about a lot, it does not seem to be about the reasoning behind the thing which is said [i.e. the claim made] at all, and that reminds me of his other poem where he spoke about men and their interest in the contest, discussion, game, while women are self-enclosed and whole, but i forgot why it reminded me of that specific poem….

            Anyways its kind of frustrating that he confuses me with scientific and yet a-scientific talk in his poetry. Since poetry is not scientific in the way science is scientific at all. And yet he obviously loves philosophy, and I would probably do the same.

            Another thing stood out to me as well, namely it feels like he deliberately aims at confusing the masses with his poetry.”

            Anyways, I honestly used to think I hated poetry, but I realize I ignored thinking – reading – about it – it itself – I just disliked the people who spoke about it; immature and hypocrite stuffy things [call it sentiments if you will] of mine (which probably all related to my former mother-in-law and her “toilet-poetry”).

            Anyways, a broken heart, your blog, and here we are – my confession.

            PS: I initially started my comment for I wondered whether you’d read something of Jung, and then, I unintentionally lost myself in the moment, being stuck between Aristotle and Wittgenstein.
            Hence the meaning [i.e. the “why was it again I wrote it?] is lost to me, well there we have it – my declaration of love for you, no, for your poetry is what I’m saying obviously.

            • thomasbrady said,

              November 9, 2018 at 4:54 pm

              Hi Jolein,

              If my poetry offends and confuses I would blame Socrates. He’s my greatest influence. I aspire to scientific curiosity, which I think poetry can do well, but such a thing can also sound terribly pretentious and boring—that’s why I limit my poetry to gossip and love, finding scientific curiosity in gossip (poetry) and love. They say ‘don’t write poetry about poetry’ but I disagree. Poetry is really only ‘about poetry’ when all is said and done. Poetry is gossip. Scientific gossip. Socrates taught me to not trust poetry itself—which is the best way to love poetry. Heaping praise on top of the already praised is no way to distinguish yourself. Hating what everyone else has praised is the way to go, especially if you can render the hate in a lovely way. Let’s face it, contradiction is how most of us live.


              • Jolein said,

                November 9, 2018 at 6:28 pm

                I’m not quite sure whether it was to you or rather to myself I replied just now.

  2. Jolein said,

    November 6, 2018 at 3:32 pm

    For me, it’s fascinating to read your work, but also slightly confusing, for its a mixture of (Greek) history, (Greek) philosophy, (Greek) mythology, American Politics, modern(/recent) (intellectual) history and culture, and some other thing(s) which seem(s) essential, at least…., to me it does, for it seems I’m missing some ingredient(s)…..

  3. Jolein said,

    November 9, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    Well I would not say your poetry offends, Tom, except that it does offend, me, at least, but only because I offended myself in the first place; it changes fences and defences and offences.

    And yet, I never quite seem to resolve the issue whether I agree of disagree with your poetry, and yet I can also never seem to let it go either.

    The duality of it all, is well quite something. Hence I agree with the pope ;).

    On a last note I’d say it’s not love versus hate, but love versus fear as a duality – as opposing contradictory forces; i.e. desire as motivation to run towards the object of desire, and fear as motivation to run away from it.

    • thomasbrady said,

      November 9, 2018 at 10:03 pm

      Of course we sometimes run from what we love.

      • Jolein said,

        November 10, 2018 at 1:05 am

        You could be right, or you could be wrong, I’m not even sure whether I agree with myself anymore, or understand whatever it was I thought I understood in the first place. Hence you might be right, or, you might be wrong, or, either, or, neither; somehow it seems irrelevant all of a sudden – darn!

        • thomasbrady said,

          November 10, 2018 at 1:44 pm

          Fear ambiguity. A child hates ambiguity but grownups give up and embrace it. The child is correct. And a child reasons better than the adult. Love versus hate, or love versus fear? Since we fear what we love, it isn’t love versus fear. The simple answer is correct: love versus hate. The grownups invariably wish to make things more complicated, thinking the ambiguous indicates “smart.” Politeness needs ambiguity, obviously. To get along, we smile at the fool. I’m like the child. I’m having none of it. I want what I want.

          • Jolein said,

            November 10, 2018 at 9:33 pm

            No, no, no, wait a second, this is not what I meant at all. You know, I wrote a reply yesterday, although I did not press sent back then, where I argued to explain “the why?” behind the claim it should be love versus fear rather than love versus hate, but then I read your poem ‘why love?’ again, and realized you never had said such in the first place, for your poem spoke of love and hate as partners. Partners do not oppose each other like opposite forces do, and love and fear oppose each other, they’re opposite forces in the way they manifest themselves. A child understands this intuitively; if you fear something you’ll get the hell away from it, however, if you love something you’ll run towards it! Hence the duality; both cannot co-exist.

            So can I conclude from what you’re saying you always live without any sorrows, or regrets, Tom?

          • Jolein said,

            November 10, 2018 at 9:54 pm

            Language is ambiguous, it confuses the masses and the self alike – and yet language is lifeful, it is beautiful, and it is lovely!
            Never fear what you love; fear what you hate, and love what you fear; but never fear what you love! So, I love ambiguity!

            • thomasbrady said,

              November 11, 2018 at 4:23 pm

              Poetry is overheard. Poetry is based on how it is perceived, more than the poetry itself—the difficult task of the poet is to make his poem perceived in a certain way. The poet creates the reader’s eyes. Ambiguity of language is a blessing and a curse, depending on how good the poet is.

              As for fear and love. I love to get drunk. But I fear getting drunk. So I still maintain love and fear can co-exist. Love and poetry are not things, which are either loved or feared, but a state—intoxication, which can be both loved and feared. Pure love, which the child and the philosopher both run towards and do not fear, exists above the human and the moon and poetry, in an ideal realm. The poet is cursed by circumstance and must navigate in circumstance, just as every love on earth is a victim of circumstance. Absolute forgiveness is necessary because circumstance catches us all in its web. Examining the circumstance is the “overheard” part, and how poetry is personified—I am not just talking in my poem, I am talking to you.

              • Jolein said,

                November 11, 2018 at 5:16 pm

                Thank you, Tom, I was looking for exactly this. I’ve been reading your blog for months now, and could not figure out why it was so appealing to me, why your writing is so appealing to me, but you just explained it to me.

                Your poems remind me of ancient Greek statues which (supposedly) were designed in a way you can’t stop looking at them, for it’s almost as if the look makes you see it’s alive, as if, the statue starts to really look back at you as well.

                By the way, is it just a metaphor you’re using, or are you referencing Plato when you speak of an ‘ideal realm’?

                • thomasbrady said,

                  November 11, 2018 at 6:52 pm

                  Thanks for your kind words. Yes, referencing Plato, and not a metaphor, this “ideal realm,”

              • Jolein said,

                November 12, 2018 at 12:01 am

                Wait a second, I’m starting to feel like I’m one of your concubines; are you saying you deliberately try to get me hooked to your poetry?

                And I’ve no Idea what to make of your reference to Plato’s “Ideal realm'”….but, then again, I’ve never completely read the Republic either.

                Sometimes, though, I get the sense your whole blog is built up following the same style as Plato’s Republic.

                A burning question of mine to you: who writes the monthly Indian poetry…..? Do you?

                • thomasbrady said,

                  November 12, 2018 at 1:58 am

                  Absolutely. The hook is deliberate. Though the poetry is dictated to me. I don’t think I write it. Or perhaps I do, dunno. I don’t think I’m different from others. But my experience is different. So it is pure circumstance which writes it, I guess. As for Plato’s ideal realm, that’s God. We can’t possibly know it directly. The Indian poetry is mine. Maybe one day I’ll go to India. Not really into traveling, though. It’s such a bother. Pictures are good enough.

                  • Jolein said,

                    November 12, 2018 at 11:41 am

                    If I could only look into your mind, a second of all the time, then, believe me, I would be fine!

                    But now, well now – your words present the biggest mystery my mind wants to solve now.

                    My God!

                    I still don’t get it, everything you say about circumstance and overheard.

                    My God!

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