“Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part;
or kiss anyway, let’s start with that, with the kissing part,
because it’s better than the parting part, isn’t it…”
As most readers of Eliot remember, ‘Immature poets imitate; great poets steal’: to put together her ‘sonnenizio’, Kim Addonizio creeps into Michael Drayton’s elegantly-furnished Elizabethan sonnet 61 and makes off with the first line. Not that Addonizio needs any help from ‘the towering dead’ to write a top-notch first line (she even has a poem called ‘The First Line is the Deepest’): ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, begins one poem, ‘but you know how to raise it in me/ like a dead girl winched up from a river.’
From petty literary theft comes originality: out of Drayton’s opening line, Addonizio constructs an entirely new form with an elaborate set of rules, repeating a word from the borrowed/shamelessly stolen line in every line of her own poem. The result is a loose sonnet that manages to be simultaneously a little bit silly and a little bit sexy, with Addonizio achieving the difficult feat of making Drayton’s time-travelling line perfectly at home in a 21st-century poem.
“…just to watch them is to feel again that hitching in the groin,
that filling of the heart…”
From a poem defined by its first line to a poem defined by its last… C.K. Williams’ ‘Love: Beginnings’ manages to be both unsettlingly voyeuristic and charming: an older male poet hasn’t looked this frankly at a young couple since Larkin reflected on the sexual revolution in ‘High Windows’ (‘When I see a couple of kids/ And guess he’s fucking her and she’s/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,/ I know this is paradise…’).
Repetition is used to suggest that sex is at the core of the poem (‘Every glance moving toward the sexual, every glance away soaring back in flame into the sexual’): this is a piece about an onlooker getting an erection from watching the wordless interplay between two people in love, but it’s also an affirmation of love’s ability to temporarily triumph over time (or lust’s ability to temporarily triumph over sense), and set ‘the old, sore heart… snorting again, stamping in its stall.’ Which has to be one of the best heart-horse metaphors you’re ever likely to read.
“I like your eyes, I like their fringes.
The way they focus on me gives me twinges.
Your upper arms drive me berserk.
I like the way your elbows work.
One of the few romantic poems to rhyme ‘cower’ with ‘Schopenhauer’ (and, no less impressively, ‘Charlotte Russe’ with ‘reproduce’), John Fuller’s ‘Valentine’ is the poetic equivalent of what Neil Strauss and his merry band of pick-up artists call ‘peacocking’ (or just plain showing-off). Iambic tetrameter serves as the metrical foundation (with plenty of flourishes and variations) for a prolonged display of wit: Fuller jumps from Cathleen ní Houlihan to chess openings, from 19th-century German philosophy to Boolean mathematics, juggling ostentatious rhymes and plentiful literary references along the way.
There’s a fine line between impressing and intimidating, but ‘Valentine’ contains enough self-deprecatory humour to soften the show of erudition. An ideal love poem if your Valentine is, like both John Fuller and his father Roy, an Oxford academic.
“There are times like places: there is weather
the shape of moments. Dark afternoons
by a fire are Craster in the rain
and a pub they happened on…”
The suicidal son in Nabokov’s ‘Signs and Symbols’ is diagnosed as suffering from ‘referential mania’, a disorder in which ‘the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his… existence.’ In the white-hot early stages of a relationship, most couples will have experienced something vaguely similar (‘This song is about us’): the world conspires to prove your happiness.
In Sheenagh Pugh’s ‘Times Like Places’, a relationship encompasses ‘a North Sea gale’ spitting spume, an August day spent picking cherries, a ‘still, glassy morning off the Hook/ when it dawned on him they didn’t talk/ in sentences any more: didn’t need to…’ Each relationship creates its own map of the world, and ‘Times Like Places’ can be read as a reminder to cherish every location on that map.
“…the stars we think we see on moonless nights
are long extinguished. And, of course,
this very moment, as you read this line,
is literally gone before you know it.”
Most love poems reflect back (everything from Hardy’s Emma poems to Frank O’Hara’s ‘Animals’), while a few look ahead with varying degrees of optimism (Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’). Michael Donaghy’s ‘The Present’ specifically acknowledges the impossibility of existing in the moment: ‘…of course,/ this very moment, as you read this line,/ is literally gone before you know it.’
Donaghy was adept at working within traditional forms, and ‘The Present’ is an iambic pentameter sonnet, although it’s so smoothly-written that you could be forgiven for believing it was free verse at first reading. It’s perhaps a love poem to poetry, too, reiterating the old hope that a poem can help hold the world still as time slips away (‘We have no time/ but this device of wantonness and wit’).
“You who demolish me, you whom I love,
be near me. Remain near me when evening,
drunk on the blood of the skies,
Set beside the cool erudition of Michael Donaghy, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Be Near Me’ is a molten display of passion. The Urdu vocabulary may appear simple enough to a skilled translator, but the emotions of a poem like ‘Be Near Me’ are almost impossible to translate into English: Michael Schmidt once wrote that ‘English English… is hostile… to the expression of direct feeling and sentiment’, and it’s hard to think of an English English poem which begins with a line as direct as Faiz’s ‘You who demolish me…’
It’s a testament, then, to the quality of Agha Shahid Ali’s translation than ‘Be Near Me’ is so successful as an English poem. Images like ‘evening, drunk on the blood of the skies’ and night’s ‘steel-blue anklets ringing with grief’ sing, even in their second language.
“Not for a single moment, Walt Whitman, lovely old man,
have I ceased to see your beard filled with butterflies,
nor your corduroy shoulders frayed by the moon,
nor your thighs of virgin Apollo,
nor your voice like a column of ash…”
(For a looser, but perhaps stronger, translation see Jack Spicer’s ‘Ode For Walt Whitman‘)
When Michael Schmidt wrote that about the hostility of ‘English English’ to sentiment, he was referring specifically to a group of Spanish poets: Antonio Machado, Luis Cernuda and Federico García Lorca.
García Lorca’s ‘Ode to Walt Whitman’, from the posthumously-published Poeta en Nueva York (Poet in New York) is a tough poem to pin down — a mixture of surrealist imagery (its best-known image is perhaps Whitman with his beard ‘filled with butterflies’), sexual longing, and bitterness. At its heart is what would now be described as a rant, in which García Lorca (an openly gay poet executed by Nationalist troops early in the Spanish Civil War) denounces ‘Maricas (gay men)’ as ‘Murderers of doves!/ Slaves to women. Their boudoir bitches.’
If ‘Ode to Walt Whitman’ can be described as a love poem at all, it is a poem full of violently self-destructive love, a poem which sees the world as ‘agony, agony. Bodies dissolve beneath city clocks,/ war passes weeping with a million grey rats…’
“I have seen his face
above my face, his mouth smiling, moaning
his eyes closed and opened, I have studied
his eyes, the brown turning gold at the centers,
I have silently watched him lying beside me
in the early morning…”
In Rilke’s words, ‘Even between the closest human beings infinite distances grow’. Susan Browne’s ‘Chance Meeting’, an encounter in a crowded street between the speaker and the man she (although the speaker’s gender is left unspecified) has lived with for seven years, is at least in part a poem about those infinite distances.
‘I know his loneliness… his private pain and pleasure,’ says the speaker, but the couple are shy and close to speechless outside the familiar routines of day-to-day living together. The speaker goes on to admit that ‘I don’t know him…’ Rilke’s infinite distances keep on expanding. ‘A wonderful living side by side can grow,’ Rilke adds, ‘if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.’
“All this that we call love –
where will it be, when the crows come?
For they will not take us both together. One of us
will be the first to lie out there on the ground dirtied by snow
down by the sea…”
‘When we grow old,’ asks Knut Ødegård, ‘where will our love be then?’ ‘All This’ is a love poem with death clearly discernible in the background, from the ominous crows in the second line to the lover’s womb ‘removed by a surgeon in Reykjavik.’ Trust a Scandinavian love poem to be gloomy…
Not that it’s all gloom, of course: there’s enough passion to keep a Spanish poet content: ‘you burn and want to have me/ like a force that smashes into the dams…’ But at the dark heart of ‘All This’ is the recognition that sooner or later, love leaves one person behind, and Ødegård’s poem addresses ‘That one of us who is left behind the window then…/ who wakes in the mornings and does everything/ we are familiar with’, only alone.
“I don ’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.”
In the English-speaking world, Pablo Neruda’s reputation rests almost entirely on his love poems (the epic Canto General, by far Neruda’s most ambitious collection, is overshadowed by Veinte Poemas de Amor, which he wrote at just 19). The passion in Veinte Poemas matured in Cien Sonetos de Amor, published in 1959 and dedicated to Matilde Urrutia, who became the poet’s third wife.
In ‘Sonnet 17’, Neruda’s love is secretive (‘between the shadow and the soul’), all-consuming and helpless (‘I cannot love any other way’); love, in ‘Sonnet 17’, is a form of self-negation (‘I am not and you are not’). ‘The progress of an artist,’ wrote Eliot, ‘is… a continual extinction of personality’; for Neruda, the progress of a lover is much the same.