‘Take your clothes off’: Poets reveal their favourite love poems
On the eve of St Valentine’s Day, some of Ireland’s finest poets discuss their most-loved love poems. One has even made a poem of it
A detail from The Kiss by Edvard Munch. Photograph: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
On Being Asked for My Favourite Love Poem
First thought: Thom Gunn, ‘Thoughts on Unpacking’.
‘I realise,’ he ends, ‘that love is an arranging.’
No sooner thought, I think of another, cracking
conclusion: ‘The world might change… Change as our kisses are changing
without our thinking.’ And then I think
of ‘Breakfast Song’, another Elizabeth Bishop poem we’re lucky to have in print.
Of Derek Mahon’s ‘Monochrome’. Of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Skunk’.
Even Matt Healy’s ‘Somebody Else’ (as good as Dylan’s ‘Idiot Wind’).
‘To My Wife at Midnight’, Graham’s best. ‘Sleeping alone together,’
he looks at her beside him, asleep in her ‘lonely
place’; and Eliot, happy, in love, tells his: ‘No… sun shall wither
The roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only’.
Yes. But I’m going to plump for Donne. The belated, astonished applause
at the end of his poem ‘The Relique’, for the ‘miracle shee was’.
Cathal McCabe’s Outer Space: Selected Poems were published last year
One of my favourite love poems is John Donne’s The Flea; surely one of the least conventionally romantic ever written. Because he was incapable of resisting the temptation to turn everything into an intellectual game, Donne uses the figure of an engorged flea to illustrate to his lady that since their two bloods are already intimately commingled in the body of the insect, she might as well give in.
The language is hilariously suggestive: ‘it sucked me first, and now sucks thee’; ‘and pampered swells with one blood made of two’ and Donne adduces some decidedly hormonal sophistry in the furtherance of his cause. When his lady threatens to squash the flea, Donne argues that because it contains blood from both of them, she will be committing murder, suicide and sacrilege: ‘This flea is you and I, and this / Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is; / Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met, / and cloistered in these living walls of jet. / Though use make you apt to kill me, / Let not to that, self-murder added be, / And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.’
I have always thought that Donne must already have got fairly far with his seduction for the flea to be feasting on both of them, and his insistence that the actual consummation would be merely a technicality would seem to bear this out. But the poem also proves that a GSOH has always been a crucial weapon in the armoury of seduction; in the end, the sexiest thing about this poem is its wit.
Caitriona O’Reilly’s latest collection Geis won the Irish Times Poetry Now Award in 2016
I found it in Seán Lucy’s 1967 anthology, Love Poems of the Irish. Translated from the Irish by Seán O’Faoláin, it’s attributed to that most versatile and able of poets, Anon, and dated with an approximate hand to the 13th-17th centuries. So who knows when it was written or by whom, and yet in all its clarity and simplicity, it lifts off the page like a golden plover beaten out of scutch grass. I love the sound of it, the delicate alliteration, the nicely-managed balancing act of the hyphenated ‘love-token’ and ‘rush-tip’, the small rhyme of ‘Muad’ and ‘greenwood’ (a rhyme between Irish and English, of course, but also, perhaps, a rhyme between Ireland and England, with the Mayo river glancing against what sounds like a Tudor grove). But I especially love it because it’s so slight; so few words, and yet they lead the narrative, gently but firmly, from discovery to intimacy, and on to what must be one of the most sensual images of any Irish poem.
The son of the King of the River Muad,
found a maiden in a greenwood:
she gave him blackberries
from the bushes,
and as love-token,
strawberries on a rush-tip.
Vona Groarke’s latest collection is X
Love poems are expected to be romantic. Some of the best are not. Here is a wonderful small poem by Tom Lux. It’s called A Little Tooth, is nine lines long, and celebrates love for a daughter. Your baby grows a tooth, then two,/and four, and five, then she wants some meat/ directly from the bone. So it begins. Then stares with abject devotion into the future. “It’s all/ over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall/ in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet talker on his way to jail. And the ending is triumph clothed in sweet defeat. You did, you loved, your feet/ are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.”
Eavan Boland’s latest collection is A Woman Without a Country
My favourite love poem is The Beadsman by CP Stewart. I discovered it by chance years ago in the literary journal Crannóg and it’s one I always come back to. It’s not a stereotypical love poem praising a lover – for me it addresses a deeper, more unconditional kind of lasting love. The lovers have clearly been apart for years and you get the impression that things ended quite badly – they no longer speak (Almost a lifetime we have lived apart./ And they who brought me news are long dead now.) – the poem itself reads like an unsent letter. But despite everything that happened he still thinks of her, still wishes her well – even after decades it is a love that will always endure. “And I have learned to lean against the pull.// It is a small pain now, but I shall not lose it.// And all is well, and I wish you well.”
For me it is a perfect poem that captures the complexity and magic of love.
Kerrie O’Brien’s debut collection Illuminate was published laast year
Married to Jane for 35 years, the love poems I look at now are getting on as well, and poignant rather than passionate. I recommend Ausonius’s wonderful To His Wife in Helen Waddell’s or James Harpur’s translations, though I particularly admire how the latter finesses Ausonius’s epigram into a sonnet. This is a beautiful vision of a couple deeply in love growing old together, a kind of Baucis and Philemon retired to Bordeaux – and entirely imagined: his wife Attusia, died before she was 28, 40 years earlier than he wrote this. His poem is written to her ghost.
Ian Duhig’s latest collection is The Blind Roadmaker
Words, Wide Night by Carol Ann Duffy is a lyric that has stayed intact in my memory for 20 years. I recall its music first and the words follow, the elegance of its phrasing. The words alluded to are not flashy, or highly flavoured ones, but plain words carefully arranged in an attempt to articulate the unsayable. I like the way the poem revises itself as it progresses, striving to be truthful. “Sorrow parallels desire in the immense complexity of love”, wrote Carson McCullers. This poem seems to balance the two things rather beautifully, giving new life to the age-old image of separated lovers looking up at a night sky. We’ve all been there.
“Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
... I close my eyes and imagine
the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you
and this is what it is like or what it is like in words.”
Colette Bryce’s fourth collection, The Whole & Rain-domed Universe, was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best Poetry Collection, the Costa Poetry Award, and the Roehampton Poetry Prize
John Donne’s A Lecture Upon the Shadow is like a sundial, with lovers standing still together at its centre. The poem is spoken at noon. Our morning shadows are love’s prelude, our evening shadows its aftermath. True to its metaphysical billing, it’s not an unequivocal love poem. All that leads up to love’s meridian is deception of others, and all that falls away from it deception of ourselves. That’s the bad news, and debatable. The good news is that in love’s moment of intense heat, the poem says, we are at the centre of our own shadows, most ourselves, self-identical. An exquisite, delicious, swoon-inducing little masterpiece.
A Lecture upon the Shadow
By John Donne
The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje
Stand still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy.
These three hours that we have spent,
Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produc’d.
But, now the sun is just above our head,
We do those shadows tread,
And to brave clearness all things are reduc’d.
So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us, and our cares; but now ‘tis not so.
That love has not attain’d the high’st degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.
Except our loves at this noon stay,
We shall new shadows make the other way.
As the first were made to blind
Others, these which come behind
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes.
If our loves faint, and westwardly decline,
To me thou, falsely, thine,
And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
the morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day;
But oh, love’s day is short, if love decay.
Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his first minute, after noon, is night.
Conor O’Callaghan’s latest collection is The Sun King. His novel, Nothing on Earth, was published last year
Lines from Louis MacNeice’s Meeting Point are often on the tip of the tongue. It has a pure nostalgia and, with its medley of rhymes and refrains, a haunting music. The lovers are in a public place, a coffee shop in a railway station – the archetypal setting for illicit love that was later encapsulated in Brief Encounter. Here, time has stopped, and yet the “radio waltz” continues and the lover flicks “away the ash”. The moment of happiness is both suspended and exquisitely temporary: the bell about to strike is holding its “inverted poise”. Crucially, the action/inaction of the poem is firmly in the past tense. Love like this cannot live in the world of time. And yet the poem keeps the memory of “what the heart has understood”.
Maurice Riordan is editor of Poetry Review in London. His collections include The Holy Land
The problem with having to choose a single favourite love poem is the breadth of choice - so many in Yeats, but also in the works of Donne, Johnson, Keats, Hardy, Neruda. The love poem brings us closest to what John Montague (his own evocative All Legendary Obstacles is a contender in any list of great love poetry) called “the fierce lyric truth”. Because poetry is song, and song often poetry, I choose Patrick Kavanagh’s Raglan Road, that intimate lament reminding us of the connection between love and loss, love and grief. The keening note of unrequited and unfulfilled desire - “….I see her walking now / Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow / That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay” – places the poem among the most powerful Kavanagh wrote.
Gerard Smyth is Poetry Editor of The Irish Times. Hi slatest collection is A Song of Elsewhere
Years ago, I did some part-time teaching at a “major” university on the east coast of the US, where I shared an office with a bona fide PhD student in the English department. One gorgeous fall afternoon, that grad student overheard me talking with someone about a poem I’d memorised – Fulke Greville’s Myra,” – “Mad girls may safely love as they may leave; / No man can print a kiss: lines may deceive” – and sharply scolded me: “You DO know that Fulke Greville is a minor poet, don’t you?” I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. The poem still makes me swoon and I share it whenever the subject of love poetry arises – as it always does.
I, with whose colours Myra dress’d her head,
I, that ware posies of her own hand-making,
I, that mine own name in the chimneys read
By Myra finely wrought ere I was waking:
Must I look on, in hope time coming may
With change bring back my turn again to play?
I, that on Sunday at the church-stile found
A garland sweet with true-love-knots in flowers,
Which I to wear about mine arms was bound
That each of us might know that all was ours:
Must I lead now an idle life in wishes,
And follow Cupid for his loaves and fishes?
I, that did wear the ring her mother left,
I, for whose love she gloried to be blamèd,
I, with whose eyes her eyes committed theft,
I, who did make her blush when I was namèd:
Must I lose ring, flowers, blush, theft, and go naked,
Watching with sighs till dead love be awakèd?
Was it for this that I might Myra see
Washing the water with her beauty‘s white?
Yet would she never write her love to me.
Thinks wit of change when thoughts are in delight?
Mad girls may safely love as they may leave;
No man can print a kiss: lines may deceive.
Don Share is editor of Poetry magazine in Chicago
When it comes to romance, we all have our secret weak spots; our sweet tooths.
A love poem that grabs me by the throat might leave you bored – and more importantly, its pleasure, like wine, depends on who you share it with. When asked by friends for poems to quote to their lovers, I tend to disappoint: the pieces I choose are fraught with what Jane Austen calls “painful sensation”. If pushed, I’d say that Ezra Pound’s The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter is one of the most beautiful poems about love - desire, longing, loss, hope - that I have ever read.
Tara Bergin won the 2014 Shine/Strong Award for This is Yarrow
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
There are many, many poems that I am fond of, but only one that I am in love with. Broom by Deborah Digges is the opening poem of her 1997 collection Rough Music. A long poem, its 200 lines traverse joy, pain and desire to give us a sense of the scuffles and ruptures of a life, and its abundance of ordinary blessings. More than anything, this poem creates a space for the multiplicities of love, for the many loves that may sustain us throughout a life: love for our homes, children, lovers, or even a treasured broom.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual writer working both in Irish and English. Among her awards are the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Michael Hartnett Prize. Her most recent book is Oighear (Coiscéim, 2017)
Rita Ann Higgins
“Hold on, get set, lets fill the gap: nine times full on, fuck fuckings;/just say you’re game, just say you will/you see I’ve eaten, had my fill /yet still my lunch-box is bulging” – An afternoon with Ipsitilla from Cattulus Poems of Love and Hate. A translation of Cattulus by Josephine Balmer (Bloodaxe)
“I want a red dress./I want it flimsy and cheap,/I want it too tight/I want to wear it till someone tears it off me.” – From What do Women Want by Kim Addonizio, from Images of Women by contemporary women poets (Arrowhead) . “I dive dive dive/down/chest pressed in/t-shirt wet against me.” – From After Love by Dani Gill, forthcoming from Salmon.
“Take your clothes off./Fill your car with mud/Then ease yourself into this large suit/whose thunderous and iridescent tail/will take you straight/to where desire began.” By Selima Hill from Portrait Of My Lover as an Iridescent Whale (Bloodaxe)
Rita Ann Higgins’ latest collection is Tongulish
I’m not even sure – after 30 years reading it – if it is a love poem. From Selected and New (The Gallery Press, 1994/2000) through Collected Poems Volume 1 (Raven Arts Press, 1984/1985) I follow it to Anatomy of a Cliché (Poetry Ireland Editions 4/ The Dolmen Press, 1968) – set, appropriately, in Pilgrim type at 8 Herbert Place, Dublin 2.
In a recent stand-up argument with an elected representative who referred to people who work in the arts as “a minority”, I found myself citing mo ghrá thú and that line about “[the] self [being] worth no money”. I hadn’t realised this poem meant so much to me.
It seems to be written in the two great languages to which this island is heir, using the sounds of one and the sensibility of the other. In the absence of prayers, it is a prayer. I am grateful for the gift of Michael Hartnett. I have grown up with this poem. I will grow old with it.
mo ghrá thú
By Michael Hartnett
With me, so you call me man,
stay: winter is harsh to us,
my self is worth no money.
But with your self spread over
me, eggs under woodcock-wings,
the grass will not be meagre:
where we walk will be white flowers.
So rare will my flesh cry out
I will not call at strange times,
we will couple when you wish:
for your womb estranges death.
Jail me in this gentle land,
let your hands hold me: I am
not man until less than man.
Tom French’s latest collection is The Way to Work'(The Gallery Press, 2016)
Broken Dreams by WB Yeats was first published in The Little Review in 1917, so this year is its anniversary. It has been pretty much my favourite poem since 1962 when I first heard the plangent reading of it by Cyril Cusack on a Caedmon LP. What is so wonderful is that Yeats, who had praised Maud Gonne so extravagantly as a Helen, begins with a shock of realism “There is grey in your hair”, but goes on to another extravagance: the “vague memories” of her beauty, and “the mysterious, always brimming lake / where those that have obeyed the holy law / paddle and are perfect”: love poetry Dante-style.
By WB Yeats
There is grey in your hair.
Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath
When you are passing;
But maybe some old gaffer mutters a blessing
Because it was your prayer
Recovered him upon the bed of death.
For your sole sake - that all heart’s ache have known,
And given to others all heart’s ache,
From meagre girlhood’s putting on
Burdensome beauty - for your sole sake
Heaven has put away the stroke of her doom,
So great her portion in that peace you make
By merely walking in a room.
Your beauty can but leave among us
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
A young man when the old men are done talking
Will say to an old man, “Tell me of that lady
The poet stubborn with his passion sang us
When age might well have chilled his blood.’
Vague memories, nothing but memories,
But in the grave all, all, shall be renewed.
The certainty that I shall see that lady
Leaning or standing or walking
In the first loveliness of womanhood,
And with the fervour of my youthful eyes,
Has set me muttering like a fool.
You are more beautiful than any one,
And yet your body had a flaw:
Your small hands were not beautiful,
And I am afraid that you will run
And paddle to the wrist
In that mysterious, always brimming lake
Where those What have obeyed the holy law
paddle and are perfect. Leave unchanged
The hands that I have kissed,
For old sake’s sake.
The last stroke of midnight dies.
All day in the one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
Bernard O’Donoghue’s latest collection is The Seasons of Cullen Church
The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaajte, for its lust, and tension. It’s this stunning, unapologetic poem about (forbidden) desire. He speaks of those loves which do not leave a scent, and compares them to the Cinnamon Peeler’s love which leaves not only a scent, but the dust of bark on her bed. The scent is such that not even a monsoon can scrub it from her skin. They make love in secret under water, to avoid others smelling the cinnamon on her, and yet, by the end there is the abandoning of all pretence, she claims the smell, the price paid to touch in the dry air.
“If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
And leave the yellow bark dust
On your pillow.
Your breasts and shoulders would reek
You could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon...”
Alvy Carragher’s debut collection Falling in love with broken things was published last year
by Wendell Berry
After the long weeks
when the heat curled the leaves
and the air thirsted, comes
a morning after rain, cool
and bright. The leaves uncurl,
the pastures begin again
to grow, the animals and the birds
rejoice. If tonight the world
ends, we’ll have had this day.
(from This Day, Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 2013)
The writings and example of Wendell Berry have remained touchstones for me since our friendship began almost 40 years ago.
Part of the goodness of this short poem – a poem that almost shouldn’t work – resides in its engagement with vicissitudes in the natural world and with the relief from them. It is a poem that proclaims, Love life. The ‘we’ in it is both personal and social. It could be either a partner or all of us. And it is an added pleasure to savour the lines’ simple wisdom with thoughts of one deserving of love.
Peter Fallon’s recent collections are The Company of Horses (dedicated to Wendell Berry) and Strong, My Love
Hard to pick a favourite love poem but some that have stuck with me for decades are Donal Og in the Lady Gregory translation, Auden’s The More Loving one, Words, Wide Night by Carol Ann Duffy, Elizabeth Bishop’s The Shampoo, Thom Gunn’s Touch, Frank O’Hara’s Animals, and his Having a Coke with You, and his Gamin… Come to think of it, maybe O’Hara is the century’s love poet: he was so open to it. But I’ll go for Housman, and It is no gift I tender. I love its back-and-forth, the way its measured rhythm matches its thought. Precise, rational, cognisant of affection’s limits – and yet in that almost ungrammatical last line, coming back to love, its oddness, its persuasion, its hold.
It is no gift I tender
by AE Housman
It is no gift I tender,
A loan is all I can;
But do not scorn the lender;
Man gets no more from man.
Oh, mortal man may borrow
What mortal man can lend;
And ‘twill not end to-morrow,
Though sure enough ‘twill end.
If death and time are stronger,
A love may yet be strong;
The world will last for longer,
But this will last for long.
Nick Laird is reading in Dublin at Mountains to Sea on March 25th and at the Heaney Homeplace on March 26th
I have chosen Rosemary in Provence – a poem from the widowed spouse, Elaine Feinstein. Another hard choice because I like so many of the poems from her collection Talking about the Dead, where she mourns her dead husband while remembering all the difficulties and hurt:
It’s easy to love the dead.
Their voices are mild, they don’t argue.
Once in the earth, they belong to us faithfully.
Taken all together, the poems in this book are an intense compressed novel. I know Tsvetaeva’s poetry through Feinstein’s masterful translations and that influence is reflected in Feinstein’s passion and honesty and fine attention. But her voice is all her own, passion and restraint, heart-break and precision. The delicacy and tenderness of this poem says so much in a handful of words. First love and late love come together heartbreakingly in the last three lines that follow “but what hurt me, as you chose slowly,/was the delicacy of your gesture”:
“the curious child, loving blossom
and mosses, still eager
in your disguise as an old man.”
Martina Evans’ latest collections is The Windows of Graceland