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 eighty-five the search is not over and the best love poems please me as much as when I was young, though now it must be said in a more contemplative way.
I remember at a dance seeing two young people obviously newly and ecstatically enraptured with each other perform for each other with utmost grace. This poem by C.K. Williams describes them.
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 beautiful book, Chinese Love Poetry, 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!’
And a poem by Xue Tao, one of the most famous courtesans in Chinese history, also of the Tang Dynasty, who learned to write poems when she was eight and excelled at calligraphy on special crimson-dyed paper, is illustrated by a lustrous basket of flowers inscribed in ink and colours on silk:
Gazing at Spring
to enjoy them with.
with whom to grieve.
I wonder when love’s
stir us most –
when flowers bloom,
or when flowers fall?
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.”