Love poems: ‘For one night only naked in your arms’ - 14 poets pick their favourites

'It was Yeats’s lessons in lovesex that hit home': poets on their favourite love poems for St Valentine’s Day

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin. Photograph: Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin. Photograph: Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images

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Ailbhe Darcy
What other words could there be for what I felt, at 13 or so, when I laid eyes on a certain “gold, dark boy”, but Chimborazo, Cotopaxi? Sure, these words may at times have been arbitrarily attached to other, more mountainy objects, but here, in this poem, they find their true home.

I met my future husband at 19, and I wrote this poem in a notebook for him. By then it had already been echoing around inside me for years, telling me the truth about love. (Love is monomaniacal, love is appalling, love is secret, love is childish, love rips you from the bosom of your family, love is woozy, love is ravishing, love is scrumdiddlyumptious.)

I should probably feel embarrassed at telling Ireland that this is my favourite love poem, but am unabashed. There are many fine poems about the grown-up parts of love, but it’s as infatuated teenagers that we learn romance, and as infatuated teenagers that we practice romance, all the rest of our lives. I don’t suppose a marriage could amount to much if it didn’t have a pair of infatuated teenagers hidden in it.
Ailbhe Darcy’s two collections are Imaginary Menagerie (2011) and Insistence (due May 2018), both with Bloodaxe

Romance
by WJ Turner
When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams,
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

I dimly heard the master’s voice
And boys far-off at play, –
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had stolen me away.

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school –
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

I walked home with a gold dark boy
And never a word I’d say,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had taken my speech away.

I gazed entranced upon his face
Fairer than any flower—
O shining Popocatapetl
It was thy magic hour:

The houses, people, traffic seemed
Thin fading dreams by day;
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi,
They had stolen my soul away!

Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh
The Gaelic tradition doesn’t indulge in the schmaltz of St Valentine. The searing, heart-twisting pain of separation is more commonly featured in Gaelic love poetry, such as in the devastating lines of Dónal Óg:

Bhain tú thoir díom is bhain tú thiar díom,
Bhain tú an ghealach is bhain tú an ghrian díom,
Bhain tú an croí geal a bhí i mo chliabh díom,
Is is rí-mhór m’fhaitíos gur bhain tú Dia díom.

For unadulterated sensuality, I refer you to any number of poems by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, although Fáilte bhéal na Sionna don iasc does end on a surprisingly tender note:

Is seinnim seoithín
do mo leannán
tonn ar thonn
leathrann ar leathrann,
mo thine ghealáin mar bhairlín thíos faoi
mo rogha a thoghas féin ón iasacht.
Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh’s latest collection is The Coast Road (Gallery Press, 2016)

Theo Dorgan

She tells her love while half asleep
by Robert Graves
She tells her love while half asleep,
In the dark hours,
With half-words whispered low:
As Earth turns in her winter sleep
And puts out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
Despite the falling snow.

I know of no short poem in the English language that packs so much magic and memorability into so few lines, except perhaps for Anon’s masterpiece (mistress-piece?), the early 16th-century lyric known as Western Wind.

Both poems share a deceptive simplicity of diction and seductive cadence, the evocation of the natural world as the proper theatre of love, and an air of the mysterious – but the Graves lyric, I think, reaches even farther and deeper into the psychic hinterland of besotted love than does the earlier poem. It catches perfectly the trance of new love, perhaps love as yet undeclared, the dawning realisation implied in “half-words”, the reticence and delicious hesitation of one who right now, right here is discovering herself, or himself, new-fledged in love.

The shift in scale that permits identification with the Earth turning towards rebirth in spring is brought perfectly home in the poem’s masterstroke, the repetition of “Despite the snow” and, even more, the suspension of time in that amplifiying “falling”. A perfect poem.
Theo Dorgan’s latest collection is Nine Bright Shiners

Medbh McGuckian
When one was sweet and twenty something , clutching at the straw of one’s virginity, it was Yeats’s lessons in lovesex that hit home, from “Brown penny, one cannot begin it too soon,” to the doting grandmother in When you are Old. Paul Muldoon’s clever-clever Cuba focused on a Catholic family in the nuclear ’60s subverting puritanical denials and frustrations with a gesture of tenderness. The girl in it does not escape, whereas in John Francis Waller’s Victorian ballad, The Spinning Wheel Song, the maid Eileen woos her grandmother into drowsiness with her own affectionate singing (all wrong according to the old woman), lulls her and leaps out in a bid for freedom to rove in the moonlight with her true love.

Being myself a protective grandmother now, I mind learning this chant as a child of eight and being seduced by the patterns and interweaving tunes of the sounds,the work concealing the lovemaking, the rhymes and inversions twisting the Irish out of the English.
Medbh McGuckian’s latest collection is Love, the Magician (Arlen House, 2018)

Enda Wyley
Some of the finest, most moving love poems in the world have grown out of desolation and isolation. And yet, the right love poem is strangely reassuring. Someone else has felt like us and has actually survived to write about it. Suddenly we know we are not alone. Suddenly we can make the love poem our own. Here is a favourite, a simple four line love lyric which I have always admired. It aches with loneliness and longing and is short but unforgettable. That the poet is anonymous, adds further to the mystery of the piece written about 1530.

Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ! If my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

Enda Wyley’s latest collection is Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems (2014)

Peter Sirr
When it comes to love poems I like to go back to the source of it all: the troubadours of southern France who kicked off the entire tradition of the lyric love poem as we know it, poets like Bernart de Ventadorn or Arnaut Daniel who inspired Dante so much he considered writing in Occitan. Dante, Petrarch, Ronsard, Marie de France, Gearóid Iarla, Yeats, Graves and everyone who writes under the sway of love today feels the hot breath of the troubadours on the backs of their necks. Some of the best of the poetry was written by women. Here’s one from the 13th century, by Beatriz, Countess of Dia, which I translated for a book I did called Sway: Versions of poems from the troubadour tradition.
Peter Sirr’s latest collection is The Rooms (Gallery Press, 2014)

How I’d like him …
Estat ai en greu cossirier
How I’d like him
oh
how I would like him my
cavalier
even if for a single night
naked in my arms
his head resting on my lap
I love him, more
than Floris loved Blanchflor

I did not tell him this

Everyone, everyone should know

To him I gave my heart my soul
my reason my eyes my life

My tender beautiful cavalier
when will I have you for myself?
For one night only
naked in your arms

If you could only take
my husband’s place
and swear to me you’ll answer
when I call, and heed my desire.

Kevin Higgins
My favourite love poem is Mayakovsky’s Past one o’clock. It was written to his on-off lover Lily Brik. The lines “Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind. / Now you and I are quits” always get me because they were anything but “quits”. In 1990 it was revealed Lily was NKVD agent 15073 and had been informing the authorities about his disillusionment with the regime of that nice Mr Stalin. The poem was left as a note when Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930. It appeals because, big eejit that I used to be, I once had a tendency to fall for the likes of Lily.
Kevin Higgins’s latest collection is Song od Songs 2.0 (Salmon Poetry)

Vladimir Mayakovsky and his on-off lover Lily Brik
Vladimir Mayakovsky and his on-off lover Lily Brik

Past one o’clock
by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1930)
translated by Max Hayward and George Reavey
Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

Aifric Mac Aodha
For my starter, Seán Dunne’s Letter to Lisbon because of where the “just” comes here: “to touch your sleeve now/ would just be enough”.

And for my mains, M’anam do sgar riomsa a-raoir (My soul parted from me last night) by Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh, who mourns his first love, a beauty who bore him 11 children and with whom the conversation only improved. The poem is especially good when his wife’s empty couch-bed reminds him of better times: “tárramair corp seada saor/ is folt claon, a leaba, id lár” (we have seen a tall noble form/ with waving tresses upon thee, O couch.) For all its cliches, that last one’s a winner – it would stir the pulse and race the heart.
Aifric Mac Aodha’s latest collection is Foreign News (Gallery Press, 2017)

Louis de Paor
As it gets harder to tell the ventriloquists and their dummies apart, it helps to remind myself I’m from the same place as Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Rory Gallagher, Seán Ó Ríordáin and Patrick Galvin: no fake; no lie; no excuse. Ó Ríordáin said Galvin’s poems were “fíochmhar, neamhscrupallach, contúirteach” [fierce, unscrupulous, dangerous]. Technique is neither here nor there, he said: when you read Galvin’s The Madwoman of Cork, nothing else exists. The same could be said of my favourite love poem, Plaisir D’Amour, where the mismatched couple are a perfect match. Paddy said his mother loved the poem and his father hated it. Better again.
Louis de Paor’s work includes Agus Rud Eile De/And Another Thing (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2010)

Plaisir d'Amour
by Patrick Galvin

Spring
My father
Against the victories of age
Would not concede defeat
He dyed his hair
And when my mother called
He said he wasn’t there.

My mother, too
Fought back against the years
But in her Sunday prayers
Apologised to God.
My father said there was no God
“And that one knows it to her painted toes”

My mother smiled.
She’d plucked her eyebrows too
And wore a see-through skirt
With matching vest.
“He likes French knickers best,” she said
“I’ll have them blest.”

My father raged.
He liked his women young, he said
And not half-dead.
He bought a second-hand guitar he couldn’t play
And sang the only song he knew –
Plaisir d’Amour.

Summer
When summer came
My father left the house
He tied a ribbon in his hair
And wore a Kaftan dress.
My mother watched him walking down the street
“He’ll break his neck in that,” she said –
“As if I care.”

He toured the world
And met a guru in Tibet.
“I’ve slept with women too,” he wrote
“And they not half my age.”
My mother threw his letter in the fire –
“The lying ghett – he couldn’t climb the stairs
With all his years”

She burned her bra
And wrote with lipstick on a card –
“I’ve got two sailors in the house
From Martinique.
They’ve got your children’s eyes.”
My father didn’t wait to answer that
He came back home.

And sitting by the fire
He said he’d lied
He’d never slept with anyone but her.
My mother said she’d never lied herself –
She’d thrown the sailors out an hour before he came.
My father’s heart would never be the same –
Plaisir d’Amour.

Autumn
Through autumn days
My father felt the leaves
Burning in the corners of his mind.
My mother, who was younger by a year,
Looked young and fair,
The sailors from the port of Martinique
Had kissed her cheek

He searched the house
And hidden in a trunk beneath the bed
My father found his second-hand guitar.
He found her see-through skirt
With matching vest.
“You wore French knickers once,” he said
“I liked them best.”

“I gave them all away,” my mother cried
“To sailors and to captains of the sea.
I’m not half-dead
I’m fit for any bed – including yours.”
She wore a sailor’s cap
And danced around the room
While father strummed his second-hand guitar.

He made the bed,
He wore his Kaftan dress
A ribbon in his hair.
“I’ll play it one more time,” he said
“And you can sing.”
She sang the only song they knew –
Plaisir d’Amour.

Winter
At sixty-four
My mother died
At sixty-five
My father.

Comment from a neighbour
Who was there:
“They’d pass for twenty.”
Plaisir d’Amour

Thomas McCarthy
Love possesses poets like no other feeling. In recent years the love poem that has most startled me and moved me is Vona Groarke’s heart-rending Ghost Poem from her Gallery Press book X. That X could be an Ex. or 10 bad things that can happen to love. The poem is a reclamation of sensuous feelings, their ghostlike impressions and markings upon a lover’s body. The skill with which Groarke layers those feelings is astonishing. Ghostly attachment makes “your life and mine/ that I made up and lived inside”. Anyone who has lost in love will get this poem instantly.

Ghost Poem
by Vona Groarke
Crowded at my window tonight, your ghosts
will have nothing to speak of but love
though the long grass leading to my door
is parted neither by you leaving

nor by you coming here. The same ghosts
keep in with my blood, the way
a small name says itself, over
and over, so one minute is cavernous

compared to the next, and I cannot locate
words enough to tell you your wrist
on my breast had the same two sounds to it.
You are a sky over narrow water

and the ghosts at my window
are a full day until I shed their loss.
I want to tell you all their bone-white,
straight-line prophecies

but the thought of you, this and every night,
is your veins in silverpoint mapped
on my skin, your life on mine,
that I made up and lived inside, as real,

and I find I cannot speak of love
or any of its wind-torn ghosts to you
who promised warm sheets and a candle, lit,
but promised me in words.
Vona Groarke, X (Gallery Press)

Tom Paulin
To Lizbie Browne may seem an odd choice of a love poem. I first encountered it in Dylan Thomas’s great reading on an EP which my English teacher, Eric Brown, played to us in Belfast in the mid-sixties. It haunted me and later I came to see it as primal, obsessive, even fetishistic.

Partly, I responded to that “Aye” – “Yes”, but with a hint of “ochone”. The word has a pause after it and this prepares us for for the way the penultimate line pauses and then completes itself with “Love”, which is emphatic and in a way heart-rending.

The two emphatic stresses on “Bay-red” tense the third stanza which softens into the Anglo-Saxon, slightly erotic, “flesh so fair”.

The poem is witty and in “coaxed and caught” slightly sinister. It succeeds in being both tender and self-mocking.
Tom Paulin’s latest work is New Selected Poems (Faber, 2014)

To Lizbie Browne
I
Dear Lizbie Browne,
Where are you now?
In sun, in rain,? –
Or is your brow
Past joy, past pain,
Dear Lizbie Browne?

II
Sweet Lizbie Browne,
How you could smile,
How you could sing! -
How archly wile
In glance-giving,
Sweet Lizbie Browne!

III
And, Lizbie Browne
Who else had hair
Bay-red as yours,
Or flesh so Fair
Bred out of doors,
Sweet Lizbie Browne!

IV
When, Lizbie Browne
You had just begun
To be endeared
By stealth to one,
You disappeared
My Lizbie Browne!

V
Aye, Lizbie Browne,
So swift your life,
And mine so slow,
You were a wife
Ere I could show
Love, Lizbie Browne.

VI
Still, Lizbie Browne,
You won, they said,
The best of men
When you were wed ...
Where went you then,
O Lizbie Browne?

VII
Dear Lizbie Browne,
I should have thought,
‘Girls ripen fast,’
And coaxed and caught
You ere you passed,
Dear Lizbie Browne!

VIII
But, Lizbie Browne,
I let you slip;
Shaped not a sign;
Touched never your lip
With lip of mine,
Lost Lizbie Browne!

IX
So, Lizbie Browne,
When on a day
Men speak of me
As not, you’ll say
‘And who was he?’
Yes, Lizbie Browne!

Elaine Feinstein

They Flee From Me
by Sir Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

I’ve always loved this poem. You could argue it is unuitable for Valentine’s Day, since Wyatt begins from his sense of rejection by the many women he has loved. He recalls them as wild creatures who once “stalked with naked foot within my chamber” and were willing to “take bread at my hands” with the gentle sensuality a man might feel for a tamed animal. All the more astonishing then to have him remembering one woman above all the others who throws off her clothes and takes sweet control of a sexual encounter. Few poems evoke more powerfully the strength and tenderness of physical love, however much Wyatt goes on to blame his lover for her “newfangleness” in going her own way.
Elaine Feinstein’s latest collection is The Clinic Memory: New and Selected Poems (Carcanet)

Julia Copus
My husband, Andrew, read John Donne’s The Good Morrow to me during our wedding and I managed not to cry, though it’s one of my all-time favourite love poems. Another is The Shampoo by Elizabeth Bishop, a poem about the robust permanence of love; it ends with the speaker offering to wash her lover’s hair in a basin that is “battered and shiny like the moon”. But I want to single out Don Paterson’s timeless sonnet, Waking with Russell, about a new father waking in bed face to face with his four-day-old son. At the mid-point of the poem, the speaker says he is mezzo del cammin – a quotation from Dante’s Inferno meaning “in the middle of the journey”. The whole thing is exquisitely crafted (there are only two rhymes throughout, though people usually don’t notice on first reading) but it’s the emotional power that makes this such a great love poem. And although it’s written for a specific situation, that unexpected rediscovery of love in the middle of life’s journey is something that resonates strongly with many readers.
Julia Copus’s works include The World’s Two Smallest Humans (Faber, 2012), shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and the Costa Poetry Award

Waking with Russell
By Don Paterson
Whatever the difference is, it all began
the day we woke up face-to-face like lovers
and his four-day-old smile dawned on him again,
possessed him, till it would not fall or waver;
and I pitched back not my old hard-pressed grin
but his own smile, or one I’d rediscovered.
Dear son, I was mezzo del cammin
and the true path was as lost to me as ever
when you cut in front and lit it as you ran.
See how the true gift never leaves the giver:
returned and redelivered, it rolled on
until the smile poured through us like a river.
How fine, I thought, this waking amongst men!
I kissed your mouth and pledged myself forever.

Christopher Reid
So many love poems are concerned with the exciting preliminaries: first glimpse, coup de foudre, wooing, and winning or losing; too few celebrate what follows. Part of Plenty by Bernard Spencer (1909-63) is a great, uxorious exception. The poet describes his wife (I take it) bringing food to the table (“soup with its good / Tickling smell, or fry winking from the fire”) and placing tulips in a jug (“upright stems and leaves that you hear creak”) in a way that brings all the senses into harmony, hearing and smell no less than sight. He proceeds like a painter, coaxing coherence from disparate elements. The final stanza, in a risky gesture typical of Spencer, confounds both syntax and grammar to suggest an uncontrolled blurting out of joy, a matrimonial ecstasy that obeys only its own laws. I find this ingenious, profound and moving.
Christopher Reid won the 2009 Costa Book Award for A Scattering

Part of Plenty
by Bernard Spencer
When she carries food to the table and stoops down
--Doing this out of love--and lays soup with its good
Tickling smell, or fry winking from the fire
And I look up, perhaps from a book I am reading
Or other work: there is an importance of beauty
Which can’t be accounted for by there and then,
And attacks me, but not separately from the welcome
Of the food, or the grace of her arms.

When she puts a sheaf of tulips in a jug
And pours in water and presses to one side
The upright stems and leaves that you hear creak,
Or loosens them, or holds them up to show me,
So that I see the tangle of their necks and cups
With the curls of her hair, and the body they are held
Against, and the stalk of the small waist rising
And flowering in the shape of breasts;

Whether in the bringing of the flowers or of the food
She offers plenty, and is part of plenty,
And whether I see her stooping, or leaning with the flowers,
What she does is ages old, and she is not simply,
No, but lovely in that way.
(from Complete Poetry, ed. Peter Robinson, Bloodaxe, 2011)

John McAuliffe
I love the way Thomas Wyatt, even when he is abandoned and has to admit, “They flee from me that some time did me seek”, can still remember, or cannot forget, what has gotten him into such trouble:

In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

I seem to go back to love poems whose pleasure is salted by something else, a feeling often found in poems I studied in translation, in Lorca, or the Old English Wulf and Eadwacer (“What was never bound is broken easily, / our song together.”).

More recently, the love poem seems to have emerged from the shadows again. The brilliant line-up of poets reading at the Cork International Poetry Festival this weekend features DA Powell whose rueful, heartsore poems include Abandonment Under the Walnut Tree (“Do whatever it is you’d like to do.” he says “Be quick.”) and just as good on love is his compatriot Carl Phillips, with his almost deranged extension of desire into everything he touches in poems like For it Felt Like Power,

But my favourite contemporary love poem, which has something Wyatt-like, charged and mysterious about it, is Lavinia Greenlaw’s Essex Kiss, which moves from detail,

A touch as bold as rum and peppermint.

Chewing gum and whelks. A whiff
of diesel, crocus, cuckoo spit.

to

Your body will give way like grain,
your body will veer

smoke over a torched field
as the wind takes and turns it.

And a closing couplet whose con and pro take their time to balance and sink in:

By this are we bound.
No paperwork.

John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing

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