Tuning Up - Summer 2011

Why I Love You

By David Lehman | June 3, 2011


A woman in California asked me whether I have a favorite word, and if so, what is it? I said my favorite word is you. I love you. She was disappointed. I think she expected me to opt for mellifluous or sibilance or some other onomatopoeic special.

But I am a poet, and pronouns in a poem or prose poem function as unknowns do in algebra, and you is the most versatile one out there. The word means the same singular and plural, and it is gender free, so it can conceal not only identity but sex and number. This makes you as useful as it, and even more complicated from the epistemological point of view. “You” can be Albert or Albertine, and no one need be the wiser.

When I say you in a poem, I immediately establish a certain intimacy, even if the words I and you in the specific case are pronominal fictions representing abstract entities, imaginary selves, characters in a dream, the author and the reader. Thus T. S. Eliot begins his love song: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky.” Join me in this adventure. Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock may lack confidence, but I, the author, am as suave a seducer as you are likely to meet.

Many claustrophobic poems would get an instant oxygen infusion if you were to add a second person, you, to the I-dominated mix. In Frank Loesser’s “I Believe in You,” one of the great songs in his How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the singer sings to himself, to his mirror image in the executive washroom, while the man’s rivals harmonize (“gotta stop that man”) and their electric razors provide the kazoolike percussion. Yet this hymn to an egocentric hero can, stripped from its theatrical context, serve quite well as a lady’s declaration of love to her dreamboat.

You and I form a joint conspiracy. Robert Frost has a wonderful poem, “Meeting and Passing,” in which a man and a woman who are destined to become lovers meet by chance on a path. After exchanging greetings, they resume walking in their opposite directions. This is how the sonnet ends: “Afterward I went past what you had passed / Before we met and you what I had passed.” The last line is a small wonder, not least because of its compression and because its iambs fall emphatically on the two verbs, the pronouns you and I, and the second half of Before. The moment “we met,” over too soon, was the moment poised between “before” and “after” as each of us enters the other’s past, which is also his or her own future.

In grammar the first and second persons combine to form the first person plural: I plus you equals we. And we also equals something else. When we go to bed, “we two being one, are it,” John Donne writes in “The Canonization” about the consummation of love, the momentary unity of the sexes combined into a higher entity. But these pronouns are slippery. Can we identify I with the ego, it with the id, we with the superego, and you with the other, imagined or real, a substitute for the parent of the opposite sex, exerting a force beyond the pleasure principle? Not necessarily, although it’s tempting to twist this Freudian conceit into a full-blown story, where you equals death, a beautiful blonde angel with a slight lisp, who sings her seductive song while Odysseus is lashed to the mast.

Ask yourself the question the surrealists struggled over: “Death—male or female?” Then consider the same question only with you instead of death.

In her villanelle “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop lists the losses that she has futilely tried to master over the course of a lifetime. First to go are “lost door keys, the hour badly spent.” Then, in a sentence where you means one or maybe I, comes the loss of “places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel.” In the fourth stanza, “my mother’s watch” and “three loved houses went.” The fifth and penultimate stanza widens the focus: the speaker mourns “some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.” But the final stanza trumps all with the mention of “losing you.”

Without you I would be as lonesome as Adam in Eden lacking free will. I need you as life needs to end in death. Without you there would be no sin, no sex, no history, no temptation, no chance for immortality. Are these rationalizations? Maybe, but that’s better than the endless quarreling between Adam and Eve that follows the eating of the forbidden fruit in the ninth book of Paradise Lost. The pungency of fruitless and the double meaning of vain in Milton’s lines make the point:

Thus they in mutual accusation spent
The fruitless hours, but neither self-condemning;
And of their vain contest appeared no end.

Whatever else they are, I and you represent the first dichotomy. I is to either as you is to or—the second person always introduces the possibility of disagreement, if not dissent. An ordinary fork in the road acquires an additional level of complexity if it is approached by two people rather than by one. Or maybe “I” and “you” are two lines that intersect, as the rue de Rennes and the boulevard Raspail meet in Paris, before going their separate ways. And in an early chapter, the novel’s hero and heroine, still unknown to each other, will cross the street in opposite directions or ride the same number 11 bus in London between the statue of Wellington on Threadneedle Street and the Albert pub on Victoria Street, with its Irish flags in the window, it being St. Patrick’s Day.

“A man and a woman / Are one,” Wallace Ste­vens observes, though the metamorphoses don’t end there. Others enter the picture. “A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one.”

When Andrew Marvell writes, “Two paradises ’twere in one, / To live in Paradise alone,” his mathematical metaphor is crucial to his defense of solitude. Just as alone contains one, I without you am one individual, unified, undivided, living in two paradises. One is the absence of time. The other is the absence of “you.”

Yet who can resist the lure of the second person? Without her, with whom would I quarrel or link? She brings the fruit of knowledge to me and I eat, and we have invented free will, which is synonymous with rebellion. Free will, free fall. Yet we feel tall. We are the gods of Romanticism, you and I, swaggering like Antony willing to kiss away his kingdom for a mirth.

The difference between “I love you still” and “I love you again” will be tomorrow’s debate.

In brief, you mean more than the world to me.

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