‘That I love you, and that when I awake in the morning I use my intelligence to discover more ways of appreciating you.’
Anais Nin to Henry Miller, A Literate Passion: 1952-1963.
Love is the greatest of all emotions, a passion more meaningful than any other, and the most valuable human experience in our lifetimes.
Poets especially understand that words are unique and that the gift of a handwritten love note can often take precedent over an expensive dinner date. Over history, literary couples have shared their love and presented their own personality by swapping a plethora of persuasions, subtle flirtations and sometimes even outrageous filth with one another in print. This is all part of the charge, writers get off on other writers, they take turns to get turned on and tuned in to stylistically showing off with humanity’s most extravagant art-form, the love letter.
‘Here I am back and still smouldering with passion, like wine smoking. Not a passion any longer for flesh, but a complete hunger for you, a devouring hunger. I read the paper about suicides and murders and I understand it thoroughly. I feel murderous, suicidal.’
Miller to Nin
What better way to regenerate the mechanics of love and its smouldering, to map out the human psyche and dwindle with the complexities of two people joining together – a puzzle we all struggle with – other than to expose it all in writing, uncovering the sense from the senseless?
At this feast of scribbling, poets feed each other with ink-filled forks, and the chronology of correspondences topple on platters to document their tenuous journey, immortalizing the hunger and tension of desire. And when things go wrong in the relationship poets also have the ability to work it out over a down-pour of spitfire lines, riding out a rampage of syllables as argument swiftly starts to negotiate with swoon and fall category to great, tidal love poems.
Anais Nin struggled with the thrills of love, as at its best it came with an absence of turmoil that she felt she needed to spurn praiseworthy prose, she gently mocks herself and her own seriousness in this sudden realisation:
‘That I love you.
That I love you.
That I love you.
I have become an idiot like Gertrude Stein. That’s what love does to intelligent women. They cannot write letters any more.’
Nin to Miller
But the platform of writing is an inexhaustible space, there are always a torrent of ways to declare desire; fuelled with lust to loyalty, romance to jealousy, and all the other heralded sentiments that invite deliberate poetics – showing us that seduction really is an affair of language. Think of Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress‘, written in the style of a Latin love elegy, all that erotic blazon; the lyrically rhymed couplets, the gallantry and applause – what woman wouldn’t give up her virginity after having that poem penned for her by a horny lover.
Yet, some of the great letters between notorious literary lovers were private correspondences that they never expected to be immortalized in books. They were not written, like most poetry, for publication. Love letters end up being precious sources that can help with historical accuracy, and in Oscar Wilde’s case with this letter below, can even be used as evidence to persecute – here when homosexuality was deemed a crime – on charges of obscenity:
‘My Own Boy, Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red-roseleaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days. Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you; but go to Salisbury first. Always, with undying love, Yours, Oscar.’
Often the lovers’ language is a members-only one; riddled with inside jokes, wrought with the pains of absence or dreamy rebellion, the writer’s tastes in love dazzled by their style of life. The documents are stocked with typos; missing punctuation, and the grammatical oddities common in writing propelled by a rupturing of intensity, rather than a poetic precision. Formal metre and rhyme is often tossed for a more fluid juxtaposition of free flowing thoughts, lines are not often tampered with after they are expressed, yet passion is resurrected and candid moments are confessed, asimilar to poetry. Usually written wildly, avoiding line breaks and causing bulky forms instead of slimline shapes, but for those who have never written a poem, writing a love letter is the closest you could get to formatting that kind of cathartic creation, that rapture.
‘I woke up this morning with great bliss of freedom & joy in my heart…everything has been rapturous ever since – I only feel sad that perhaps you left worried when we waved goodby and kissed so awkwardly – I wish I could have that over to say goodby to you happier& without the worries and doubts I had that dusty dusk when you left…. – I even feel much changed, great clouds rolled away, as I feel when you and I were in rapport, well, our rapport has remained in me, with me, rather than losing it, I’m feeling to everyone, something of the same as between us.’
Allen Ginsberg to Peter Orlovsky
Letter writing excavates the impulses and craft required to write great poetry, the artistic anxieties and ‘insanities’ Miller talks about, the heartburn and heartaches that catalyses notable literature, and reveals, as Christopher Morely so aptly put it, ‘the mother-of-pearly shimmer inside the oyster of Fact’. Love letters get right to the heart of truth, despite the haemorrhage of theatricalities performed on the way there.
‘Don’t expect me to be sane anymore. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes- you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Ansalusian blood, distilled and poisonous. Everything I do and say and think relates back to the marriage. I saw you as the mistress of your home…eyes all over your skin, woman, woman, woman. I can’t see how I can go on living away from you- these intermissions are death’
Miller to Nin
Contemporary times and the rise of technology doesn’t stop us from being dramatic when it comes to love, digital shifting shouldn’t desensitize us, in fact it should only encourage our need to share. Now affairs and marriage scandals spill out as we pen our modern love missives across social media, sharing virtual online courtships with keyboard-crossed lovers, and well, The Selected Emails of Oscar Wilde just doesn’t have the same ring to it does it. Something of the romance is lost, and I don’t mean the quill-and-ink-wax-sealed kind of enchanted production, but something about the urgency, the modern love letter doesn’t have to journey anywhere any more, its reachability stamped with the click of a button – no anguish of lost pigeons, or postal flaws – just: I want to tell you what’s on my mind my love, and here, it immediately finds you:
‘Look Here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.’
Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville West
This unparalleled passion stands as a poem to me, but either way, can you imagine finding that as a message in your inbox one morning sipping coffee through a yawn. The digital crossover of letter to electronic mail does not prevent the beauty in which we write to each other as a method of flattery.
I have been intimate with a few writers, and I know that the chemistry between the writing to each other elevates the act of intimacy to a supreme platform. Experiences together are documented and discussed in illuminative fervent messages, all the senses are heightened by the charm of collected words made conceptual on the page, the retelling and reliving of the moment keeping us both enthralled. Flirtation in prose is seriously glorious foreplay. Whether you are a writer or not, this is why currently we so often shut out the world around us and can’t seem to put down our mobile phones – we want to be seduced. And if you are not using today’s accessibility to enamour your loved one with words once in awhile, then someone else is quite possibly sending them instead.
‘I would describe one of those moments, when the senses are exactly tuned by the rising tenderness of the heart, and according reason entices you to live in the present moment.- It is not rapture. – It is a sublime tranquillity. I have felt it in your arm – Hush! Let not the light see, I was going to say hear it – These confessions should only be uttered – you know where, when the curtains are up – and all the world shut out.’
Mary Shelley to Percy Shelley, The World’s Greatest Letters.
Janette Ayachi is the Poetry School’s Digital Poet in Residence. Follow her on the blog here.