‘Love’ must be one of the most overused words in the English language. So much ‘love poetry’ has been written over the course of human experience, that it might be reasonable to ask – why bother adding to the literature of love poetry? Is there anything more to say?
I think there’s lots more to say, because love is a huge, and hugely important subject, and every writer is unique; and so, who – and what – they love is real, urgent, and hugely important to them. Humans wither and shrivel and fare very badly without it – from new-born babies to anyone dying at the end of long (or indeed short) lives.
Love between a parent and child (or grandchild) can be every bit as profound as love between ‘lovers’. In Leanne O’Sullivan’s tender poem For My Brother, she describes two siblings drunkenly chatting at 2 a.m., after a pub gig. Here’s an extract from the 3rd stanza:
Our eyes pinned to each other as we talk,
the night curved over us like a womb.
This is the safe time, when the world is
asleep and we can bitch about it.
Tonight you tell me that you love
talking to me…
When a close friend dies, we mourn them fully and deeply – because we loved them. Tennyson wrote about the agony of losing his friend, in the much anthologised In Memorium:
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand…
Love can also be playful and exciting, making us feel skittish and adventurous. It can nurture and protect. And it can obsess us, drive us mad. In the wonderfully direct Poem for My Future Love, (from her first collection, The Heavy Petting Zoo, written whilst she was a teenager), Clare Pollard asserts:
I want to fall in love so hard it bruises.
I want to fall in love so hard it scars.
I want to fall in love so hard it fractures,
And cuts my knees and slices up my arms.
There can be a dark, spiky, dangerous side to love, when it tips into obsession, as well as a light, comforting, warm side, when, as UA Fanthorpe says in her poem, Atlas, celebrating not the first thrill of attraction, but the gentler joys of a long relationship:
There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;
Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;
And we can love places and Nature/natural phenomena, as well as – sometimes, perhaps, as much as – people. Here’s John Masefield’s opening stanza in Sea Fever:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
It’s an urgent opening, full of passion. The seas and everything about them are what this narrator loves, and he must get there, as soon as possible.
For me, the best love poems – whether the poet is writing about a parent, a lover (real or imagined), a friend, an animal, a place, a spoon – take risks. The poem takes a deep breath and allows itself to be vulnerable and fully itself. Vulnerability takes courage. It takes conviction. It means sharing something deeply personal, unique to the poem’s writer. Only that writer loved that other person, or place, or thing, in that way. So only that writer can find (usually through trial, error, several drafts) exactly the right images, the right tone, structure, form, to express that love.
Take a deep breath, take a risk. As (the often waspish) Larkin said at the end of An Arundel Tomb – ‘What will survive of us is love.’