Today’s contribution is from guest blogger Drew Cross.
Poetry is amongst the best ways of closely articulating the complexities of the human emotional experience. It can be fluent and flowing or fractured and hesitant, a soothing caress or a jarring linguistic slap, mirroring the experience of the sensations that it strives to explore and convey. In those rare and sublime moments when poetry is at its very best, we are so absorbed by the power of the verse that we literally feel the echoes of the poet’s emotion for ourselves.
Of all the topics favoured by the true poetic greats, love is one of the most commonplace but perversely one of the hardest to evoke with sincerity and real depth. For me it is at its most interesting when the poetry captures the essence of all-consuming – dare I say obsessive – love?
As ever, Shakespeare neatly summed it up in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ :
‘Now no discourse, except it be of Love;
Now I can break my fast, dine, sup and sleep
Upon the very naked name of Love.’
Love is an almost universal experience. The difficulty in aspiring to evoke that plethora of physical and mental experiences is in the very fact that they are universal – their familiarity (and the subtle personal distinctions that we attach to our own experiences of that complex emotion) means that as readers we can smell insincerity or cliché at twenty paces. Shakespeare cleverly rounds that pitfall and immediately transports us back to that exquisite agony with three crafted and deceptively simple lines.
Later, in a virtual antithesis of Shakespeare, Charles Baudelaire took the bittersweet agonies of his own obsessive desires, and wrote the extraordinary visceral series of poems that eventually comprised ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’. You can feel the feverish madness simmering through the lines with their themes of death and sex, the tragic and corrupt, the deeply sacred and the explicitly profane. For him the experience of love was a violent maelstrom.
‘She’s in my voice, in all I do!
Her poison flows in all my veins!
I am the looking-glass of pain
Where she regards herself’
From ‘Heautontimoroumenos’ – which roughly translates as ‘The self-torturer’.
Baudelaire found beauty in ugliness and ugliness in beauty, widely offending the sensibilities of the public at large and falling foul of obscenity laws, while simultaneously inspiring his artistic peers and contemporaries. His obsessions found their outlet in verse that stands the test of time right up to the present day. He sparked an aesthetic that celebrates the tragic, doomed, obsessive experience of love, with its funereal garb and all of the beauty and misery of the grave.
Fast forward another 150 or so years, and another extraordinary poet tackled obsessive love in a very different vein. In 2005 Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Rapture’ charted the beginning, middle and end of an intense personal rollercoaster of love that seems almost ruinous to the reader. The opener, called simply ‘You’, begins:
‘Falling in love
is glamorous hell; the crouched, parched heart
like a tiger ready to kill; a flame’s fierce lick under the skin.’
– continuing and deepening through a beautiful, complex, but always accessible, series of breath-taking pieces that serve as individual stories or as one heart-breakingly painful whole. In the title poem she breathlessly opines:
‘Thought of by you all day, I think of you.’
before charting the first hairline cracks in the relationship in ‘Row’:
‘But when we rowed,
your face blanked like a page erased of words,
my hands squeezed themselves, burned like verbs,
love turned, and ran, and cowered in our heads.’
And then the slow slide into the beginning of oblivion with ‘Wintering’:
‘All day slow funerals have ploughed the rain.
We’ve done again
that trick of turning love to pain.’
Finally ending, as one might expect, with ‘Over’:
‘What do I have
to help me, without spell or prayer,
endure this hour, endless, heartless, anonymous,
the death of love?’
Duffy’s work is wonderful, familiar, urgent, and insistent, but also unbearably personal – a self- vivisection on the page. What she does, like the other greats that have come before her, is to draw you into a world of sensations that you’ve known and fought hard to forget. Anybody who possesses the bravery and sheer talent to expose themselves so honestly and accessibly, through a medium so often used as a veil to hide behind, is an artist who should be read by all.
Lamentably, we live in a world which is often dismissive or ignorant of poetry as an important and powerful means of self-expression. ‘Popular culture’ is not quite an oxymoron (police intelligence, anybody?!), but seems at times to be sliding in that direction. Very few young people aspire to be poets, or even writers, in the traditional sense of the word; but perhaps there is still hope for the generation(s) who do miss out on these vital art forms.
The preoccupation with love (even obsessive love) is still a universal theme; it always will be; but the media of choice for expressing and conveying the power of that emotion have adapted and changed with the times. In a society that spends less and less time deep in thought, and increasingly demands instant direct gratification, there still exist poets with the ability to reach audiences of millions.
I’ll end with a quotation from such a person, who works with another equally ancient but equally relevant method of communication and self-expression:
‘The stars the moon, they have all been turned out,
You left me in the dark.
No dawn, no day, I’m always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart.’
From the song ‘Cosmic Love’ by Florence and the Machine.