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What are the greatest love poems?

Love (Robert Indiana/Corbis)

Love (Robert Indiana/Corbis)

As a festival in London celebrates the art of love poetry, Lucy Scholes discovers how writers around the world express emotions through verse.

Love, as we all know, is a many-splendoured thing. Quite how many splendours, however, depends on the language. The Ancient Greeks had around 30 words to describe love in all its manifestations, whereas modern English and many other languages use the same word to describe everything from romantic attachment and erotic yearnings, to the sentiment a parent feels for their child, and the bonds of community.

In an attempt to unpick the various facets of the word, London’s Southbank Centre is hosting a summer-long Festival of Love exploring its many different nuances – from romantic love and the breakdown of relationships, to the harmony (or discord) between nations and the concept of memorials.

Coinciding with the biennial Poetry International festival – co-founded by Ted Hughes in 1967 – actors and poets from across the globe are coming together to read 50 of the greatest love poems of the last 50 years. Beginning with the romantic and intangible in Langston Hughes’s The Dream Keeper, and concluding with Derek Walcott’s famous hymn, Love After Love, the 50 chosen poems traverse the territory of the festival’s seven kinds of love, borrowed from the Ancient Greeks: Agape (love of humanity); Storge (family love); Pragma (love which endures); Philautia (self-respect); Philla (shared experience); Ludus (flirting, playful affection); and Eros (romantic and erotic love).

Beyond its Hellenic foundations, the event is a truly global love-in, bringing together the works of poets from 30 countries; a multinational achievement only made possible by the topic in question – no other subject transcends geographical and cultural boundaries with the same conviction. When asked to choose her favourite love poem, the double Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel selected an untitled splinter of verse dating back to before 1530:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

It doesn’t matter that these words were written 500 years ago, the sentiment expressed rings as true today as it did then: “Anyone who has lain hundreds or thousands of miles from home, listening to strangers’ rain falling on a stranger’s roof,” Mantel explains, “will respond to the vehement longing in this old, mysterious fragment.” The language of love is universal, and as such love poetry isn’t tethered by the same traditions and inheritance as other genres.

The Kiss (Gustav Klimt)

The Kiss (detail) (Gustav Klimt/Painting – Alamy)

‘Universal language’

As Jon Stallworthy explains in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Love Poetry, “There is no suggestion of a single torch, kindled in ‘the dark backward abysm of time’, being passed from one civilisation to another. Rather, it is clear that feelings of passionate love common to all mankind have, generally by a process of internal combustion, kindled the poets of different periods and places.” This is something echoed by many of the poets taking part at the Southbank’s event. To Indian poet Kutti Revathi love is “a unique language common to every soul on earth, echoed in every corner of the world, uttered by every silent soul”; and Saudi Arabian Ashjan Al Hendi describes it as “a universal language that does not vary from one country to another and is not subject to religion, race nor ethnicity.”

The most obvious love poems involve declarations of romantic love – from traditional Troubadour songs, Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, and sentimental Victorian verse. As the American psychologist Harry F Harlow wrote in his 1958 paper The Nature of Love, “the little we write about it has been written better by poets and novelists”, and so it is to these wordsmiths that most of us turn when we want to express our romantic feelings. Certain love poems have become firm wedding favourites, such as American poet Michael Donaghy’s The Present – a poem about the eternity of love through the prism of an always-ephemeral moment – “so much so,” Donaghy’s widow Maddy Paxman tells me, “that we didn’t feel that we wanted it at our own.”

Paxman and Celia Hewitt (poet Adrian Mitchell’s second wife) are both reading one of their late husband’s poems at the Southbank event – Paxman, The Present; and Hewitt, Celia, Celia, a poem Mitchell wrote about her. “All love poems are poems first and declarations of love second,” Paxman explains, arguing that Donaghy’s poem is more than just a personal avowal of his love for her: “although it may have been written ‘for’ me, it isn’t ‘about’ me,” hence its popularity at weddings. Similarly, Mitchell transformed his own individual experience into an articulation of an emotion that held a universal truth for many others.

The Kiss by Toulouse-Latrec

The Kiss (detail) 1892 (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)

Object of affection

Traditionally, and as is the case with these two examples, love poetry has been governed by male voices, while women languished as the, often objectified, object of desire. All well and good when it’s a poem “so full of fun”, as Hewitt describes Celia, Celia:

When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope is gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on.¹

It is more problematic in cultures where women’s voices have typically been silenced. This issue is directly addressed in Revathi’s poem Breasts, which reclaims the Tamil woman’s body as her own inhabited, lived reality rather than an externally objectified commodity – I watched in awe – and guarded – / Their gradual swell and blooming / At the edges of my youth’s season – but, Revathi tells me, it also “indicates the voices of women’s poetry from every nook and corner of the world.” Indeed, she intends to dedicate the occasion of the reading “as a tribute to all women who have been oppressed physically and sexually in the mantle of Caste.” In subverting both the poetic history and the wider socio-political context that her work comes from, Revathi’s poem speaks of a love for humanity: “The expected metamorphosis of this world can be brought about only by love. I trust it. And hence ‘Love Poetry’ is my choice,” she explains.

As both the larger festival and the kaleidoscope of these 50 poems show, to see love poetry only in terms of the relationship between the lover and his or her beloved is to see only the most narrow of responses to the subject. Al Hendi’s poem In Search of the Other, for example, sees love between people manifested as a desire for communication:

Isabella
She searches for someone else every day;
and finds me
And I search for someone else;
but find her
It is said: that East and West shall never meet
but Isabella and I
Meet every day
on our trip in search of others.²

So too, Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov’s When Someone Goes Away Everything That’s Been Done Comes Back speaks of emotion borne out of shared experience – The bus / seat is always warm. / Last words are carried over / like oblique buckets to an ordinary summer fire. The poem, he tells me, exists “between those loves and traces of absence”.

Each of the 50 poems chosen will be read in their original language, with English translations where necessary – something that also draws our attention to just how important it is that these declarations of love are correctly interpreted. After all, it’s the sentiment expressed that is universal, not the individual words being used to carry it, and, as Revathi warns, “translations may be linguistically correct and emotionally wrong”.

Love, Al Hendi says, is “the greatest human emotion”, because where love exists, “tolerance, peace, and understanding” are found: “Hence, we are in need of love especially in these present times that are filled with war, violence and pain because only love can erase painful moments and open ways for good human communication and relationships.” The consensus amongst the poets I spoke with was a belief in the transformative power of love, whether between individuals or entire nations, but for such important change to be affected, translation is key. “It is important that the recipient of love in any form is capable of receiving it and interpreting the emotion properly beyond the words of the message because often times a lack of emotional understanding might stand against love,” Al Hendi continues. “In today’s world, if we lose love for one another and we allow hatred to replace it, we will all be losers.”

¹ By permission of United Agents on behalf of the estate of Adrian Mitchell, from Adrian Mitchell Greatest Hits (Bloodaxe, 1991).

² By permission of the author, translated by the author, from Gathering the Tide - an Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry (Ithaca Press, 2011).
 

50 Greatest Love Poems of the Last 50 Years is at Southbank Centre's Poetry International festival in London on Sunday 20 July.

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