My shortlist of favourite love poems would include Louis MacNeice's Mayfly ("But when this summer is over let us die together, / I want always to be near your breasts."); W.S. Graham's To My Wife at Midnight ("Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower."); and Derek Mahon's early masterpiece Preface to a Love Poem ("This is a way of airing my distraught / Love of your silence. You are the soul of silence.")
But today I want to celebrate a love poem I have had by heart for more than 60 years. It is by Robert Graves:
She tells her love while half asleep,
In the dark hours,
With half-words whispered low:
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
And puts out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
Despite the falling snow.
Perfect pitch. The rhythm of love. A huge short lyric. Seven lines that resonate endlessly.
For the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, one of the great witness poets of the 20th century (first to the Nazi devastation of Poland and afterwards to the Soviet takeover of so much of Eastern Europe), literature could be equated with (in his poem A Confession) "A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud, / A tournament of hunchbacks". Rather than steering his life in some other direction, however, this realisation seems central to his determination to put literature, and specifically poetry, at its very centre. Perhaps it is that an ambiguity, a contradiction, a tension of some sort is what attracts the living soul, the creative heart, the responsive intelligence.
But in poetry, as in life, those who engage in the ideas of politics, or the politics of ideas, must also be measured on their performance on the considerably smaller but no less intensely lit stage of interpersonal relationships. That is to say, for great poets the two are not separate arenas but twin entrances to the same chamber of truth, openness and integrity. This understanding can give the love poems a powerfully public dimension as well as vice versa. It is as if the act of love and the reporting of it is, in itself, the expression on which everything else depends and by which it is to be measured.
If romantic love tends to eclipse the world, to see only the immediate object of its desire, love poems of the level of achievement which Milosz so often reached explore a kind of connectedness that does anything but. The whole world watches, and is transformed, by the realisation in After Paradise, for example, that "the tilt of a head, / A hand with a comb / two faces in a mirror / Are only forever once . . ." Milosz does not need to describe the eyes or ears, the limbs or tresses of his lover. Instead he describes "How softly it rains / On the roofs of the city . . .", and he prays for "that little park with greenish marble busts / In the pearl-gray light" to "remain as it was when you opened the gate" – as if the love he knew had the power to transform the entire world.
I need a poetry first-aid kit or an arsenal for the many experiences love hurls at you. To this end, some of the emergency poems I've included are Valentine by Carol Ann Duffy, Child by Sylvia Plath, Love by Eavan Boland, Did You Come Yets of the Western World by Rita Ann Higgins, Animals by Frank O'Hara, Talking in Bed by Philip Larkin and Poem Ended by a Death by Fleur Adcock.
I return to Adcock’s poem again and again. Something about the passing of time, the strong physical connection between the speaker and her dead love. There’s a bleak profoundness about love pitted against death/ loss in such a visceral way and I like the honest offbeat kilter to the poem, something unresolved, the voice almost berating itself. It’s so final and sobering.
Poem Ended by a Death
By Fleur Adcock
They will wash all my kisses and fingerprints off you
and my tearstains – I was more inclined to weep
in those wild-garlicky days – and our happier stains,
thin scales of papery silk. . .Fuck that for a cheap
opener; and false too – any such traces
you pumiced away yourself, those years ago
when you sent my letters back, in the week I married
that anecdotal ape. So start again. So:
They will remove the tubes and drips and dressings
which I censor from my dream. They will, it is true,
wash you; and they will put you into a box.
After which whatever else they may do
won't matter. This is my laconic style.
You praised it, as I praised your intricate pearled
embroideries, these links laced us together,
plain and purl across the ribs of the world.
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
A favourite love poem of mine is Emily Dickinson's Wild Nights – Wild Nights!. Dickinson is not best remembered for romantic poetry but she didn't leave any poetics or treatise to explain her life's work, so we can come to her poems with minds and hearts open. The poet's posthumous editor and friend, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, worried about including Wild Nights – Wild Nights! in the 1891 volume of her poetry "lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there."
Higginson seems very sure of Dickinson's virginal state but seems to forget that she had a late romance with her father's friend, Judge Otis Lord. Dickinson was seen sitting in Lord's lap and wrote to him (in the third person): "I confess that I love him – I rejoice that I love him . . ." Lord asked to marry her; apparently she refused. Wild Nights – Wild Nights! predates Dickinson's romance with Lord but she had previous love objects, like the mysterious "Master", and also sister-in-law Sue, whom she loved ardently, as many Victorian women loved their dearest friends or, maybe, as some people think, there was more to it than that. So we can see that the abandon of this celebrated Dickinson love poem is not out of place and can be read for what it is: a passionate, exuberant and loving cry from the heart, beautifully done.
The miraculous thing about love is that it can strike at any time, at any age, and each time it strikes, it feels like the first time. This rhapsodic love poem by Louis MacNeice was written in 1959 when the poet was 52 and on a visit to South Africa as guest lecturer at the University of Cape Town. With a string of failed relationships behind him (two marriages, several love affairs), MacNeice met a young woman called Sylvia Shear on the beach near the cottage where he was staying in Cape Town. The poem that resulted, All Over Again, is a 24-line torrent of excitement consisting of just one sentence and with the circular structure he'd already used in his poem 'Meeting Point'.
The opening line draws on Ben Jonson's Ode: To Celia ("Drink to me only with thine eyes") and may play on the similarly sounding Sylvia, but it moves at breathless pace through space and time and other poetic echoes, from Keat's "hemlock pipe" to Hopkins's inscape (One kiss ingathered world) to the edge of the mortal cliff where that kiss contains past and present and future. The fact that MacNeice was to fall for another South African woman within days of his meeting with Sylvia doesn't take from my fondness for this poem by a poet perhaps aware that his loving days were nearing an end – that "outward rippling bell" tolls for someone: he died just four years later.
All over again
by Louis MacNeice
As if I had known you for years drink to me only if
Those frontiers have never changed on the mad map of the years
And all our tears were earned and this were the first cliff
From which we embraced the sea and these were the first words
We spread to lure the birds that nested in our day
As if it were always morning their dawnsong theirs and ours
And waking no one else me and you only now
Under the brow of a blue and imperturbable hill
Where still time stands and plays his bland and hemlock pipe
And the ripe moment tugs and declines to fall and all
The years we had not met forget themselves in this
One kiss ingathered world and outward rippling bell
To the rim of the cup of the sky and leave it only there
Near into far blue into blue all over again
Notwithstanding unique all over all again
Of which to speak requires new fires of the tongue some trick
Of the light in the dark of the muted voice of the turning wild
World yet calm in her storm gay in her ancient rocks
To preserve today one kiss in this skybound timeless cup
Nor shall I ask for anything more of future or past
This being last and first sound sight on the eyes and ears
And each long then and there suspended on this cliff
Shining and slicing edge that reflects the sun as if
This one Between were All and we in love for years.
Nessa O’Mahony is a poet and novelist. Her fifth poetry collection, The Hollow Woman and the Island, is due from Salmon Poetry later this year
Caitríona Ní Chléirchín
Máire Mhac an tSaoi writes about the torment of heart and suffering caused by forbidden love in her long poem Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin giving a feminine insight into the pain and pleasure of the body and the vulnerability of the body towards suffering. Máire Ní Ógáin can be imagined as any lover who has been abandoned. She was the mistress of the 18th century poet Donncha Rua Mac Conmara and is the archetype of the unhappy female lover in Irish folklore. Máire Mhac an tSaoi gives us a great insight into the close connection between emotional pain and physical pain in the experience of love and passion:
Ghabhais de chosaibh i gcion
A tugadh go fial ar dúis,
Gan aithint féin féd throigh
Fulaing na feola a bhrúigh!
Is fós tá an creat umhal
Ar mhaithe le seanagheallúint,
Ach ó thost cantain an chroí
Tránn áthas an phléisiúr.
It was a physical passion that transgressed all the rules, of society and the church, a passion that leaves her on her own. The speaker is left powerless and it’s clear that society will judge her harshly because she has transgressed certain rules. In western culture the body was devalued and priority was given to the intellect. Mac an tSaoi subverted the conventions of the 1950s by giving voice to the marginal figure of Máire Ní Ógáin. She also challenged the separation imposed by Cartesian thought and the Church on the soul and body with the honest portrayal of sexual love in this poetic masterpiece.
Caitríona Ní Chléirchín’s two collections are Crithloinnir (2010) and An Bhrídeach Sí (2014), both with Coiscéim. Her poems are included in the Calling Cards anthology published by the Gallery Press in 2018
Love is gyroscopic; inert if neglected, but a gravity-defying reel through human emotion, when spun. Carol Anne Duffy's eccentric and deliciously unconventional poem Valentine captures this dynamism – "Not a red rose or a satin heart.//I give you an onion./It is a moon wrapped in brown paper./It promises light/like the careful undressing of love". In A Charm on the Night of Your Birthday, Theo Dorgan's charming love poem evokes the ache of long absence at sea – "I'll sleep now, soon, under seven stars/the plough in the night dipping towards you/your ghost on deck above holding our course/your bones asleep in me." Love must move through all its phases in the gyre, so while Dorgan's poem holds the promise of return, Deryn Rees-Jones's long poem I.M. wrestles with departure, and is one of the most moving and deeply affecting poems on love and loss and the persistence of love I know –
`House of the Singing Winds'
At the foot of the Sugarloaf
blackthorn spikes and brides
the hedgerows, crows gather
in the upward fields. Now grief
is written in their dark alignments,
sorrow in a nearby field of horses.
In an absent moment I can still
look up to see you there, call out in sleep,
or pull two glasses from the press.
(Published in Winter 2015 Poetry Review & in Rees-Jones Selected Poems)
When I first met Peter, my husband, I was reading Thomas Kinsella's poem Midsummer. Peter read it aloud to me, I was mortified and delighted at how magnificent and sensual the experience was. And, however enigmatic the poem is, Kinsella's Midsummer has remained our love poem for over 30 years.
Hereabouts the signs are good.
Propitious creatures of the wood
After their fashion
Have pitied and blessed before our eyes.
All unpremeditated lies
Our scattered passion.
Flowers whose name I do not know
Make happy signals to us. O
Did ever bees
Stumble on such a quiet before!
The evening is a huge closed door
And no one sees
How we, absorbed in our own art,
Have locked ourselves inside one heart,
Grown silent and,
Under beech and sacred larch,
Watched as though it were an arch
That heart expand.
Something that for this long year
Had hid and halted like a deer
Parted the tragic grasses, tame,
Lifted its perfect head and came
To welcome us.
We have, dear reason, of this glade
An endless tabernacle made,
Well for whatever lonely one
Will find this right place to lay down
His desert in.
"You can't pick that for Valentine's Day– it's morose!" My husband's reaction to my poem selection. Not entirely what I was going for . . . Maybe I was meant to pick something more romantic like the Shakespeare quote inscribed in Latin on our wedding bands: Plus tibi do, Plus mihi habeo ("The more I give to thee, The more I have.") Or something a bit sexier-subtle as Sylvia Plath's Love Letter, sassy as Maya Angelou's Remembrance, swoonworthy as Pablo Neruda's "I want/To do with you what spring does with the cherry trees", or (goodness!) erotic as Sharon Olds' The Knowing . . . perhaps breathless as EE Cummings' i like my body when it is with your: "and what-is-it comes/over parting flesh . . . And eyes big love-crumbs".
And though Cummings' [i carry your heart with me (i carry it in)] battled WB Yeats' Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven for second place, I apparently chose morose over these. "Morose", to me, would have been Lenore or Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe, or any love poem by Emily Dickinson (even if I have loved Dickinson since she first released my inner Goth at the tender age of 11).
On reflection, I realised that I was wrong – my husband was right – but for the wrong reason. Not because it is morose. And not because it might be regarded as trite, through its popularisation by the 1994 film, Four Weddings and a Funeral. But because it is more inward-looking. I had chosen WH Auden's Funeral Blues (Stop all the clocks) because it makes my heart burst with the exquisite knowing of the measure of a great love: "He was my North, my South, my East and West,/My working week and my Sunday rest,/My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;/I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong."
Forced to re-examine my thinking, the truth erupted in a midnight bolt out of a sultry, sleepless Sydney summer’s night. My ultimate, utterly perfect, love poem is just two entirely selfless words, first dispatched by text, and now re-issued in many forms the world over:
'Noli timere' – Seamus Heaney
These words in Latin to his wife just minutes before his death sweep everything else away in their wake. These words say so much more to me than their English translation: “Do not be afraid.” These words reflect a soul facing into the gathering dark, clinging to the brink, who chooses in those last moments to reach back and comfort his beloved. I believe they achieve what so many seek and consider impossible. For anyone who has loved and lost, to me, these words cross the void to breach the infinite silence of bereavement, whispering over and again: “Do not be afraid. I can see the light ahead. I will wait for you there.” These words, therefore, to me are the profoundest poetic utterance of love.
Anne Casey’s debut collection is x (Salmon)
John F Deane
In his youth, our gay-beard poet, John Donne, had great ambitions to be part of the court elite and earn money and prestige. Part of his pearling about was the writing of poems, love poems, and he excelled at them, and at the artifice that enlivens them, whether or not he was boasting beyond his actual experience. As in, for instance, The Sun Rising:
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
To broaden his appeal he took to calling himself Jack: much more lively, sexy and challenging. But life took hold: he really fell in love where he should not and basically ran away with a young girl, the daughter of one of his patrons. He was thrown into prison, was released, but lived in poverty and, having many children, his court ambitions lay in ashes. To help support his growing family he turned to the church, and genuinely turned to God in his difficulties. Now he tried, worried about his soul, to find a real faith in a forgiving deity. To this end he put his powerful intellect and his language, retaining the artifice but willing himself towards love of God:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
The secular love poems had become efforts to woo his God. Both forms of love poem remain wonderfully fresh and telling in Donne's work. Perhaps the greatest love poem of them all is The Song of Songs, poached by confessing generations from the secular world to stand for love between the soul and Yahweh; its passionate and refreshingly intimate sexuality remains new and splendidly alive since many centuries before the churches that use it as merely allegory.
I liken you, my darling, to a mare
among Pharaoh's chariot horses.
Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings,
your neck with strings of jewels.
We will make you earrings of gold,
studded with silver.
Would that the God of contemporary Christian faith were just like this. One of the love poems that utterly holds me is by the late American poet, Jack Gilbert. Perhaps touching on the actual thought of love in a way analogous to George Herbert's great dramatic poem simply called Love, Gilbert faces up to the question of love in a gently philosophical, yet very real examination of its songs and sorrows. There is neither real woman nor God in the poem; it skates gracefully around the object, and examines love from so many angles. Several poems in the work of this fine poet, touch on individual love and loves to which this poem forms a resounding and musical accompaniment.
Gilbert's poem is called The Great Fires, the title referring to the large passions in life, the greatest being love. He says:
It is not the body that finds love.
What leads us there is the body.
What is not love provokes it.
What is not love quenches it.
The rich movement of the poem lies in its awareness of the spirit’s relationship with bodily urgencies, those passions “which are called love”, he writes, are not love, but do bring us there: love “opens the castle of our spirit / so that we might find the love which is / a mystery hidden there.
We need the passion to set love on fire: passion, however, does not last, like paper starting a fire it burns out, but the flame remains:
Passion is the paper
and twigs that kindle the flames
but cannot sustain them. Desire perishes
because it tries to be love.
Love is eaten away by appetite.
Love does not last, but it is different
from the passions that do not last.
Love lasts by not lasting.
Isaiah said each man walks in his own fire
for his sins. Love allows us to walk
in the sweet music of our particular heart.
The poem, while being wholly contemporary, touches on the great paradoxes beloved by Jack Donne: “Love lasts by not lasting”; and on the deep holiness of the soul that was touched on by George Herbert where “Love bade me welcome” and Gilbert now may walk “in the sweet music” of the heart.
The poem is the title poem of the collection The Great Fires (Alfred A Knopf, 1994). John F Deane's latest collection is Dear Pilgrims (Carcanet, 2018)
Considering the multitudes, there's a focused simplicity to be found in slim pickings: a second guess at my initial reaction led to a third followed by a fourth and so on. In a way, the difficulty in choosing almost mirrors the matter itself: when something ordinary becomes extraordinary in the intimacy of private address: "Who asks to listen? And who/Do these words listen to/In some far equivalent?" I've chosen Seven Letters from WS Graham's The Nightfishing. Choose one of the letters or choose them all; love-wise, there isn't anything that's not there – life and death, music and silence, movement and stillness: "Lie in the world's room, /My dear, and contribute/Here where all dialogues write." A spell of time passes between re-reads and I find myself in need of them again.
A day the wind was hardly
Shaking the youngest frond
Of April I went on
The high moor we know.
I put my childhood out
Into a cocked hat
And you moving the myrtle
Walked slowly over.
A sweet clearness became.
The Clyde sleeved in its firth
Reached and dazzled me.
I moved and caught the sweet
Courtesy of your mouth.
My breath to your breath.
And as you lay fondly
In the crushed smell of the moor
The courageous and just sun
Opened its door.
And there we lay hallway
Your body and my body
On the high moor. Without
A word then we went
Our ways. I heard the moor
Curling its cries far
Across the still loch.
The great verbs of the sea
Come down on us in a roar.
What shall I answer for?
Michelle O’Sullivan’s latest collection is This One High Field (The Gallery Press, 2018)
In an organisation like ours, we're lucky to have very many new poems swirling about us at any given time. Chances are, of course, that many of them will have love as their chosen theme. One such poem, recently published in Poetry Ireland Review, was Pride 2017 by Rosamund Taylor in which she celebrates the 'strangers who have already marched' to ensure that 'new rings gleam' for the poet and her wife.
A love poem that has especially stayed with me over the last year is Note by Leanne O'Sullivan. The final poem in her marvellous collection A Quarter of an Hour, I find it deeply moving, most of all for the line 'For I have singled you out from the whole world'. Like a single explosive act, this points up the caprice of any life, articulating the notion of the great good fortune we may have to meet 'the one' in this staggering universe of ours. It's even more affecting when we know that it's about the poet's husband's long and shocking illness which caused him to fall into a coma and to lose his memory.
Like many good poems, it fills us with a sense of the expansive possibility of life and of the place within it of those whom we are lucky to love.
If we become separated from each other
this evening try to remember the last time
you saw me, and go back and wait for me there.
I promise I won't be very long,
though I am haunted by the feeling
that I might keep missing you,
with the noise of the city growing too
loud and the day burning out so quickly.
But let's just say it's as good a plan as any.
Just once let's imagine a word for the memory
that lives beyond the body, that circles
and sets all things alight. For I have
singled you out from the whole world,
and I would - even as this darkness
is falling, even when the night comes
where there are no more words, and the day
comes when there is no more light.
(from A Quarter of An Hour, Bloodaxe Books 2018)
Maureen Kennelly is director of Poetry Ireland
- 'It was Yeats's lessons in lovesex that hit home': Tom Paulin, Theo Dorgan, Medbh McGuckian and more on their favourite love poems for St Valentine's Day 2018
- 'Take your clothes off': Eavan Boland, Vrona Groarke, Rita Ann Higgins and more on their favourite love poems for St Valentine's Day 2017