Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
One night last July, the Tallahassee air full of the smell of semi-tropical rain and azaleas, drinking my third glass of a heavy red wine and listening to YouTube videos one after another on my laptop, I was thinking about a silly little love affair from the past that didn’t work out.
As the night went on and I got a little drunk, I tried to find a song on YouTube to “match” the odd pleasure I had taken in the game-like quality of the affair. I searched and searched and then bingo—Lady Gaga’s “Love Games.”
I clicked. I watched. I felt better. In the song, love is conceived as a challenge: impossible, exhilarating, and frustrating, but overall, a game. Gaga doesn’t seem too bothered that men want to “play a love game / a love game.” She asks, “You want to play a love game? . . . Bring it on.” At the same time, watching the video and listening to the song, I didn’t get the feeling it was a game she invented.
If Gaga had lived in twelfth century France, she might have been a trobairitz, or female troubadour. Pop music, as a whole, is a contemporary genre that mirrors many aspects of troubadour poetry, which flourished in Southern Italy and France in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The troubadours wrote different types of songs—satires, pastorals, dance songs, debate songs—but they are best known for creating and solidifying codes of heterosexual love, and passing those codes down through history in poetry.
It is thanks to the troubadours that we have Gaga’s “Love Games,” and it is thanks to Gaga that I turned off YouTube that night and went to my bookshelf and read straight through an anthology called Lyrics of the Middle Ages,edited by James J. Wilhelm. I got it at a library book sale and it had been sitting in the trunk of my car, and then unread on my bookshelf for years. When I finally sat down and read through these medieval poets—Marcabru, Countess of Dia, Arnaut Daniel—I realized that unlike most of the writing from the Middle Ages, these love songs can be secular and vulgar. Often, the troubadours are not praising Jesus in their songs—they are baptizing dildos.
Despite the intriguing nature of the poems’ secularity, I also couldn’t help but notice the darkness of male heterosexual desire replayed over and over in some of these poems. While the troubadours are known for their romantic attitudes, some poems reveal disturbing aggression towards women and often the poems contain vulgar puns made at the expense of women. Here’s a stanza from a poem in the anthology called “Now I see brown, dark, troubled heavens” by Raimbaut of Orange (c. 1147–1173):
My verse is now completely leashed upand I’d like to see it carried secureto my Demon-Girl, may it make her grim!
In the Raimbaut of Orange poem I have translated below, I set out to capture this more ominous side—the madness of the psychology of the frustrated male lover. The poets best known for translating the troubadours (Ezra Pound and Paul Blackburn immediately come to mind) have been men. I wondered, as I read through the poems, if a woman translating the poems might see this male aggression more clearly.
We normally associate the troubadours with the positive and idealistic aspects of romantic love. However, in the translation below, I wanted to reveal aggression as part of the formula that cannot be easily separated from the romance narrative. The speaker wants to “play it cool” and let his audience know he is unbothered by the lady he thinks is leading him on. Yet as his aggression and sexual frustration grow, the tone of the poem grows increasingly frenzied, and by the end of the poem, he asserts his total dominance over her. If she rejects him, his response is to control her in the language-code of his poem. At first the mention of a goat shoulder bone as dildo strikes the reader as funny, but it is also violent and rife with misogyny:
Don’t-Know-What-This-Thing-Is, Do-You?Hey, everyone listen up! This is the truth thoughI don’t really know what I’m going to say.This thing that I’m writing doesn’t really goby any name so I’m not sure of the right wayto pull it off. All I know is that it is in noway a satire or love poem but heyWHATEVER IT WILL BE, ONE THING’S FOR SURE—NO WOMAN OR MAN, UP UNTIL NOW, IN THIS CENTURY OR ANY OTHER, HAS EVER SEEN ANYTHING QUITE LIKE IT.Friends, go ahead and call me insanebut I can’t find a reason to stop myselfand what kind of fool would place blameon a man for trying to express himselfin plain speech? The point is, all I reallygive a damn about in this world is how I feel.AND YOU KNOW WHY? (AND NOW I KNOW YOU WILL BE PISSED AT ME IF I DON’T FINISH THIS THING.) BECAUSE I’D RATHER HAVE FIVE BUCKS AND SOME MUSIC RIGHT HERE ON THIS EARTH THAN BE FABULOUSLY WEALTHY IN HEAVEN.Hey Lady, listen up. Please don’t worry.See, nothing whatsoever that you do would everbug me so never feel you have to have to hurryto help me with that thing we discussed foreverand a day ago. I can wait. Everyone knows wheneverdeceit grows, it’s from a heart too easily given pleasure.WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT HERE IS THIS LADY WHO’S PLAYING HARD TO GET BY FLATTERING ME BUT THEN GIVING ME NOTHING. I DON’T KNOW WHY SHE’S DOING IT. DO ANY OF YOU THINK SHE’LL EVER COME AROUND?Friends, it’s been a mere four months but it feelslike a million years ago that she promised, no,she guaranteed, no, she begged me to stealthat jewel I yearn for most of all. If it’s soeasy for her to snatch my heart to the point of noreturn, why can’t her flesh sweeten this bitter meal?GOD DAMN IT, I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE. LADY, YOU’VE GOTTA GIVE ME SOME KIND OF SIGN AND LET ME KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON IN THAT HEAD OF YOURS.Lady, you’re driving me crazy.One minute you make me high, the next, I totallycrash. Either way, you also make me sing this melody.You should know I’ve already dumped three perfectlygood women because of you. In the street they whisper,“Beware that guy Raimbaut, the jongleur, who’s out of his mind.”LADY, DO WITH MY DICK WHAT LADY EMMA DID WITH THE SHOULDER BONE OF THAT GOAT WHEN SHE STUCK IT IN HER CUNT WHENEVER SHE WANTED.Alright, everyone. I’ve now finished myDon’t-Know-What-This-Thing-Is-Do-You?So, let’s baptize it! Since none of us have ever heard this stylebefore why don’t we give it a name to conclude?And let’s teach everyone to learn it by heartand recite it when they want pleasure.SO, IF ANYONE ASKS WHO WROTE IT, YOU TELL THEM, “A MAN WHO CAN DO ANYTHING HE WANTS WHENEVER HE FEELS LIKE IT.”
My own noble worth and lineage should assist me,As well as my good looks and refined nature,And I’m sending this poem as my messengerOver there where you hold your estate.I’d like to know, my fine fair friend,Why you’re so savage to me and so cruel.Is it your proud nature or just ill will?But, messenger, I want you to say one thing more—Many a man has suffered greatly for foolish pride.
(A note on the translation: I compared a number of translations of this poem, which begins, “Escotatz, mas no say que s'es.” None of the translations that I read were “poetic” translations. Instead of a verbatim translation, I attempted to create a “poetic” translation so that I could bring to life some of the complicated formal patterning of sound that exists in the original Occitan—recreating, as best I could, for example, the rhyme scheme (a/b/a/b/a/b), (c/d/c/d/c/d) etc. In the original poem, each stanza begins with six rhymed lines and ends with a prose sentence. I took the liberty of putting the prose sentence in caps to offset the lines of poetry and the lines of prose, give the poem more voice, and highlight the way that the form is working. The poem looks a bit like a proto-sestina.)
What, as poets and modern readers, can we learn from these medieval poems? What do they tell us about the love songs and poems that we hear today? For one thing, we are reminded that passion, seduction, and heterosexual desire are all gendered problems that are materialized, encoded, and passed down through language. When we write love poems, we are also writing into this history, probably without even realizing it.
Raimbaut of Orange was very proud of the fact that he wrote in the “trobar clus” style—the “closed style.” A poet who wrote in the “trobar clus” wanted a select audience to break the language codes, the love games, of his poems. In one poem Raimbaut writes, “I would gladly have made a little canso / easy to say / but I fear I would die / and I have made it so it conceals the meaning.” Now that centuries have gone by, we can, in a sense, break these love codes by parsing the gender dynamics of the poems. Later in the poem he writes, “The words will be discovered / by the one who divides them rightly.” Thinking carefully about the way women are represented in his poems is exactly what Raimbaut challenges us to do.
Sandra Simonds is the author of four published books of poetry: Steal It Back, The Sonnets, Mother Was a Tragic Girl, and Warsaw Bikini. Her fifth book, Further Problems with Pleasure, was the winner of the 2015 Akron Poetry Prize and will be out in February 2017. Her poems have been included in the Best American Poetry 2015 and 2014 and have appeared in many literary journals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, Chicago Review, Granta, Ploughshares, Fence, Court Green, and Lana Turner. She is an assistant professor of English and Humanities at Thomas University.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Both regulators and employers have embraced new technologies for on-the-job monitoring, turning a blind eye to unjust working conditions.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.