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Carol Ann Duffy on her collection Love Poems – Guardian book club


The sonnet is the perfect form for the love poem – the little black dress of poetry

The churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words …

So wrote Samuel Beckett in his marvellous 1936 love poem "Cascando", which, like all great love poems, genuflects to the unutterable power of love over language. A guiding impulse for poets down the centuries has been to describe, interrogate and celebrate love, one of the most intense and important of human experiences.

The love poem has formed a considerable part of my own work, like that of any number of poets before me. My collection Rapture (Picador 2005) consisted of 52 poems which followed the course of a love affair from its beginnings to its end; but in 2010 Picador published Love Poems, a selection of more varied poems written by me between 1987 and 2011. Re-reading this selection for the purposes of the Guardian Book Club has been very much a case of emotion totally forgotten in tranquility.

Unlike the poems in Rapture, not all the poems in Love Poems are wholly autobiographical – some of them, as though at the Venice Carnival, are wearing a mask. The first poem, "Correspondents", is written in the voice of a respectable Victorian wife who is having an affair ("I read your dark words. and do to myself things / you can only imagine"). It appears alongside "Warming Her Pearls", a lesbian love poem in the voice of a lady's maid who fancies not the mistress's pearls but the mistress herself. I think what I was interested in at the time of writing these poems was in finding a language and imagery for the erotic and the hidden or secret. The pearls warmed by the pining servant's skin are, of course, a metaphor for her desire; but a poem is also like a pearl – a language-jewel provoked into existence by the grit of feeling or revelation.

"Girlfriends", another poem of love between women, is derived from a poem by the French Symbolist poet, Verlaine. Poets, when they write a love poem, cannot be unaware of the long tradition of poets standing behind them – their stores of images and metaphors and forms. My poem "The Love Poem" explores this tension between the urge to "make it new" and the obligation to the past:

till love gives in and speaks
in the whisper of art –
dear heart,
how like you this?

In this quote, we hear Anne Boleyn via Wyatt. Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) is credited with introducing the sonnet into English poetry and, as Shakespeare sublimely demonstrates, the sonnet is the perfect form for the love poem; the little black dress of poetry. I use the form, strictly or loosely, in a dozen of the poems here, paying homage to its greatest English practitioner in "Anne Hathaway", an elegiac love poem in which Shakespeare's widow considers her Will's will:

My lover's words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance, his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.

"My" Anne Hathaway had a happy relationship, but in the poems "Adultery" and "Disgrace", which are taken from Mean Time(Picador 1993) I was exploring the end of love, of love gone wrong. This fracturing, or wreckage, is mirrored in the language and syntax of these poems.

Adultery itself gains a voice and threatens to overpower its own poem ("You did it. / What. Didn't you. Fuck. Fuck. No. That was / the wrong verb. This is only an abstract noun.") And in "Disgrace", both home and language are trashed by betrayal and resentment ("Cherished italics / suddenly sour on our tongues, obscenities / spraying themselves on the wall in my head.") In this collection, there is a movement towards healing by poetry, towards language as grace, and I composed the title poem as a kind of prayer, which both seeks and bestows forgiveness:

If the darkening sky could lift
more than one hour from this day,
there are words I would never have said
nor have heard you say.

Elsewhere in this selection, "White Writing" (a reference to Montherlant's aphorism "Happiness writes white") is an epithalamium for a wedding between women which is haunted by its own (under current law) impossibility ("no vows written to wed you, / I write them white") and "New Vows" searches for words to "unhold", "unhave", "unlove", in a kind of reverse wedding-poem. The poems are all concerned with love, yes, in its various stages, but equally so with language as love's stammering, inarticulate messenger. "For I am in love with you and this / is what it is like or what it is like in words."

• Carol Ann Duffy will be talking to John Mullan about her love poetry on Wednesday at Kings Place, London N1 9AG. The next Book Club will look at Capital by John Lanchester.

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