Valentine’s Day Poetry

Love isn’t always pretty.

This year Slate again presents a small anthology of love poems that goes beyond the traditional sweetness of Valentine’s Day chocolates, the prettiness of a dozen roses. One of the oldest traditions in love poetry is an impatience with love and love poetry—a note of exasperation that seeps into the declaration of passion. Honoring that tradition, this year’s anthology ardently avoids the mushy.

To push past the mere prettiness of love is not necessarily to deny that love is, as George Peele says (with a dash of irony) in the 1580s, “a pretty, pretty thing”:

WHAT THING IS LOVEWhat thing is love? for sure love is a thing.
It is a prick, it is a sting,
It is a pretty, pretty thing;
It is a fire, it is a coal,
Whose flame creeps in at every hole;
And as my wit doth best devise,
Love’s dwelling is in ladies’ eyes,
From whence do glance love’s piercing darts,
That make such holes into our hearts;
And all the world herein accord,
Love is a great and mighty lord;
And when he list to mount so high,
With Venus he in heaven doth lie,
And evermore hath been a god,
Since Mars and she played even and odd.

Readers who find bawdy jokes in “mount” or anywhere else in the poem are onto something, I think. And “pretty, pretty” is clearly more complicated and ambivalent than a single “pretty” would have been—the way “yeah, yeah” is not as positive as a single “yeah.”

Earlier, in the 1530s, Sir Thomas Wyatt takes a tough, plain-spoken approach, but he does not deny that he perpetually “burneth.” (Language about being “hot” seems to be a long-standing, maybe universal, erotic terminology.) Wyatt concedes his burning almost as an aside, in artful contrast with his businesslike terseness. (The useful, archaic word “bourdes” means “pranks” or “jokes.”)

MADAM, WITHOUTEN MANY WORDSMadam, withouten many words,
           Once I am sure ye will or no;
And if ye will, then leave your bourdes,
            And use your wit and show it so.And with a beck ye shall me call;
            And if of one that burneth alway
Ye have any pity at all,
            Answer him fair with yea or nay.If it be yea, I shall be fain;
            If it be nay, friends as before;
Ye shall another man obtain,
            And I mine own, and yours no more.

Wyatt is said to have been the lover of Anne Boleyn before she married Henry VIII. That may give a special meaning to “Ye shall another man obtain.” The king had a lot to offer, but this elegant bluntness would give him something to compete with. As in Shakespeare and in the great screwball comedies of Hollywood, Wyatt’s aggressively feigned indifference is itself an attractive, flirtatious display.

Love is associated with elegant rhetoric—and yet it is also supposed to be all-consuming, beyond such performance. That is the point of Wyatt’s plainness. Elizabeth Bishop takes up the issue in “Casabianca,” a poem that harks back to a now-forgotten chestnut of oral recitation, Felicia Hemans’ once popular poem by the same title.

CASABIANCALove’s the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite “The boy stood on
the burning deck.” Love’s the son
            stood stammering elocution
            while the poor ship in flames went down.Love’s the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolboy platform, too,
            or an excuse to stay
            on deck. And love’s the burning boy.

Like Wyatt’s plainness, Bishop’s allusions to reciting raise the question of how one can write verses when supposedly consumed by love.

It has been said that two people are never really, completely divorced, just as two people are never really, completely married. In that sense, love never really, completely is over. It can lurk in a shut drawer, suggests Louise Bogan:

PACKET OF LETTERS In the shut drawer, even now, they rave and grieve—
To be approached at times with the frightened tear;
Their cold to be drawn away from, as one, at nightfall,
Draws the cloak closer against the cold of the marsh. There, there, the thugs of the heart did murder.
There, still in murderers’ guise, two stand embraced, embalmed.

“Embraced, embalmed”: It is a grim wordplay on the prefix, but in those raving and grieving letters, unread but felt and well-understood, love endures beyond the two who murdered it between them.

The great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy finds an unexpected, passionate image for love in “The Bandaged Shoulder.” Here it is as translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

THE BANDAGED SHOULDER He said he’d hurt himself against a wall or had fallen down.
But there was probably some other reason
for the wounded, the bandaged shoulder. With a rather abrupt gesture,
as he reached for a shelf to bring down
some photographs he wanted to look at,
the bandage came undone and a little blood ran. I did it up again, taking my time
over the binding; he wasn’t in pain
and I liked looking at the blood.
It was a thing of my love, that blood. When he left, I found, in front of his chair,
a bloody rag, part of the dressing,
a rag to be thrown straight into the garbage;
and I put it to my lips
and kept it there a long while—
the blood of love against my lips.

Like the quarantined love letters in Bogan’s poem, the bloody, discarded bandage suggests that separation and absence are essential to poems about love.

Ben Jonson, translating a fragment of the Roman poet Petronius Arbiter, advocates the other chronological side of separation: love kept alive not in the past, but in the future. In other words, not nostalgia but foreplay:

FRAGMENTUM PETRON. ARBITR. TRANSLATED Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustfull beasts, that onely know to doe it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay,
But thus, thus, keeping endlesse Holy-day,
Let us together closely lie, and kisse,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleas’d, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

William Carlos Williams is equally sensual, playing a literary game with the notion of a sonnet. Here is his 14-line poem:

SONNET IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHORNude bodies like peeled logs
sometimes give off a sweetest
odor, man and woman under the trees in full excess
matching the cushion ofaromatic pine‑drift fallen
threaded with trailing woodbine
a sonnet might be made of itMight be made of it! odor of excess
odor of pine needles, odor of
peeled logs, odor of no odor
other than trailing woodbine thathas no odor, odor of a nude woman
sometimes, odor of a man.

The traditional sonnet enjoys its own eloquence, and its flamboyant artfulness is a form of sexual display: Pleasure in fancy rhetoric merges with erotic pleasure. In this untraditional-looking non-sonnet, Williams does the same with his own kind of rhetoric. The poem is more of a sonnet than it pretends to be. It even observes the traditional turn, or volta, in the ninth line, with his exclamation “Might be made of it!”—recognizing that imagination creates feeling in love as well as in art.

Not that the traditional sonnet is merely sugary. In Shakespeare, as in film comedy, conflict and even insult can be forms of courtship. Here is Shakespeare’s contemporary Michael Drayton, with one of the most engaging, meditative first lines in all literature:

THREE SORTS OF SERPENTS DO RESEMBLE THEEThree sorts of serpents do resemble thee:
That dangerous eye-killing cockatrice,
The enchanting siren, which doth so entice,
The weeping crocodile—these vile pernicious three.
The basilisk his nature takes from thee,
Who for my life in secret wait dost lie,
And to my heart sendst poison from thine eye:
Thus do I feel the pain, the cause, yet cannot see.
Fair-maid no more, but Mer-maid be thy name,
Who with thy sweet alluring harmony
Hast played the thief, and stolen my heart from me,
And like a tyrant makst my grief thy game:
         Thou crocodile, who when thou hast me slain, 
         Lamentst my death, with tears of thy disdain.

To be complained about with such systematic wit is a compliment.

But what about sincerity in love, not Wyatt’s gruff request for yes-or-no, but truth from the heart? Two poems come to mind. Here is Jane Kenyon’s rendering from the Russian of Anna Akhmatova:

N.V.N.There is a sacred, secret line in loving
which attraction and even passion cannot cross,—
even if lips draw near in awful silence
and love tears at the heart.Friendship is weak and useless here,
and years of happiness, exalted and full of fire,
because the soul is free and does not know
the slow luxuries of sensual life.Those who try to come near it are insane
and those who reach it are shaken by grief,
So now you know exactly why
my heart beats no faster under your hand.

There is a powerful bewilderment in the turn of the final line. Plainer, and a suitable final offering in this collection of poems on love, are these lines by John Keats, not published by him, but found written on a manuscript after his death. His poem distills candidly the turbulence of love—the terrible, tender, unmitigated, needy reaching toward another:

LINES WRITTEN IN THE MS. OF THE CAP AND BELLSThis living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood,
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d. See, here it is—
I hold it towards you.