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 –
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."