Ian On Sunday
At thirteen, I think it was, I was reading love poetry. At seventeen, love-lorn often, I was writing it – very badly, full of inconsolable sighs and lamentation, but at least I was trying. And all my life since I have made a special point of looking for books of love poetry and collecting them. At seventy-six the search is not over and the best love poems please me as much as when I was young, though now in a more contemplative way.
In WS Merwin’s new book of poems, The Shadow of Sirius, there is a poem which I love. The last line lodges in my mind.
Through all of youth I was looking for you
without knowing what I was looking for
or what to call you I think I did not
even know I was looking how would I
have known you when I saw you as I did
time after time when you appeared to me
as you did naked offering yourself
entirely at that moment and you let
me breathe you touch you taste you knowing
no more than I did and only when I
began to think of losing you did I
recognize you when you were already
part memory part distance remaining
mine in the ways that I learn to miss you
from what we cannot hold the stars are made.
And look at this poem which I think is wonderful as I recall at dances seeing young people obviously newly and ecstatically enraptured with each other perform with desire and utmost grace on the dance floor. It is a poem by CK Williams.
They’re at that stage where so much desire streams between them,
so much frank need and want,
so much absorption in the other and the self and the self-admiring
entity and unity they make –
her mouth so full, breast so lifted, head thrown back so far in her
laughter at his laughter,
he so solid, planted, oaky, firm, so resonantly factual in the
headiness of being craved so,
she almost wreathed upon him as they intertwine again, touch again,cheek, lip, shoulder, brow,
every glance moving toward the sexual, every glance away
soaring back in flame into the sexual –
that just to watch them is to feel again that hitching in the
groin, that filling of the heart,
the old, sore heart, the battered, foundered, faithful heart,
snorting again, stamping in its stall.
Chinese love poems, in translation, have particularly fascinated me. These poems are less intense, but more subtle, than love poems in the Western tradition. You can read whole life stories in a few lines. Hints of deep devotion or desolation pierce deeper than loud declamation. A friend made me a gift of a beautiful book of Chinese Love Poetry which brings together the arts of poetry, calligraphy and painting regarded in China as the Triple Excellence. The illustrations, all taken from the British Museum collection, are beautifully appropriate to the chosen poems. A poem by Wang Wei, calligrapher, painter and musician of the Tang Dynasty (618-906), is marvelously illustrated with a jade cup decorated with plum blossoms and dragons:
Farewell to Xin Jian at Hibiscus Pavilion
A cold rain mingled with the river
at evening, when I entered Wu;
In the clear dawn I bid you farewell,
lonely as Chu mountain.
My kinsfolk in Luoyang,
should they ask about me,
Tell them: ‘My heart is a piece of ice
In a jade cup!’
From such delicate and subtle, love hardly spoken, poems it is a far cry to the fervent, explicit, marvelously whole-hearted poems of Pablo Neruda celebrating love with earthy reverence and no reservations. Here is number seventeen of his 100 Love Sonnets
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers:
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
Finding a definition of love is an eternal task for poets, for any of us. It is not passion, it is not desire, though these may be paths that bring us to love. In his beautiful poem The Great Fires the American poet Jack Gilbert writes at the end some lines in which I sense may be the truth about love.
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.