Monday, March 22, 2010

Love is in the air

After an exceptionally long and rigorous winter I'm overjoyed to spot the first tulips stubbornly pushing their yellow heads through a last patch of melting snow. Contemplating this pretty picture through my kitchen window, I raise my eyes to the clay-tile roof across the street and observe a randy pigeon frantically trying to mount all the feathered females in sight. Yes, spring is in the air.

Flowers are budding, birds are fornicating, and all around me human beings are falling in love. (I live in a house with teenagers.) And I suddenly have this irresistible urge to read love poetry. Fortunately I have the perfect book at hand: Penguin's Poems for Love, selected by Laura Barber, a brand new anthology presented to me by a poetic friend, Isobel Dixon, who has two short and potent poems included in the impressive selection.

What I really appreciate about this beautiful book - beautiful in appearance and contents - is that the poems are not arranged in the predictable chronological order. The result is that some centuries-old poems suddenly seem almost shockingly modern, while some contempory poems acquire a classic sheen. A handful of the usual suspects like Pope, Byron and, of course, Shakespeare (for how could Shakespeare not feature in any serious collection of love poetry?), are so famous that one doesn't need to see their birth dates to place them in their historical context, but a few of the lesser-known names (or lesser-known to me, at any rate) provided a pleasant surprise when I checked their birth dates in the Index at the back of the book.

Laura Barber arranged her selection in a more original way, using Elizabeth Barret Browning's evergreen sonnet How do I love thee? as a map to chart the ways of poetic love. (How do I love thee? Let me count the ways./ I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/ My soul can reach...) Barret Browning (1806 - 1861) continues in this vein: I love thee freely... I love thee purely... I love thee with a passion... and concludes: I shall but love thee better after death. So Barber presents her chosen poems according to adjectives, with captions such as Suddenly, Secretly, Persuasively, Passionately, Brutally, Bitterly and, after Finally, also Eternally. Of course. We are dealing with love poetry, remember.

But not everything here is romantic. On the contrary, some of the poems are refreshingly cynical, humorous, even absurd. Realistic, as love has to be when it wants to survive. And when it comes to realism in love, Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 is as delightful today as it was four centuries ago: My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.../ If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun.../And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.

Many of the poems are sensual, sexy, lustful; others are almost unbearably tender and sad. Some of my favourites deal with older love, love that endures past youthful passion, such as Margaret Atwood's Sunset II: Sunset, now that we're finally in it/ is not what we thought. This one ends with the evocative lines: This is you on my skin somewhere/ in the form of sand.

Whatever mood of love you happen to be in, you'll find an appropriate poem here. You'll rediscover old flames and be titillated by new possibilities. I was overwhelmed by two poems of Elizabeth Bishop, whom I'd somehow never thought of as a 'love poet'. Too 'intelligent', I had probably presumed - as if intelligence should be separated from love! Well, now that I've read One Art, on 'the art' of losing a lover, and the heart-breakingly beautiful Breakfast Song, I look at Bishop with something like awe.

Read Breakfast Song - preferably over breakfast - and you'll see what I mean. It starts like this: My love, my saving grace,/ your eyes are awfully blue./ I kiss your funny face,/ your coffee-flavoured mouth... Then it turns to death, in the same pure and simple way, before finally returning to the saving grace of the beloved's awfully blue eyes - 'early and instant blue'.

Pure and simple joy. As is Isobel Dixon's two-line poem, Truce: You bear the hatchet./ I'll bury my heart. Poems don't have to be as lengthy and rigorous as this past winter. Sometimes they can be as instantly overwhelming as the first tulips of spring.

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