Published on Valentine’s Day, this new anthology of love poetry takes its title from Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The Cinnamon Peeler’, a powerfully sensuous meditation on the physicality of love experienced as material desire, all bodies and touching and sticky warmth: “I buried my hands / in saffron, disguised them / over smoking tar, / helped the honey gatherers . . .”. The best love poetry (and there’s a lot of it in this book) achieves this mingling of the solid and the intellectual, the external world and internal emotions, in its attempts to account for the bewildering experience of love.
Maura Dooley’s ‘Preface’ to this selection talks about how initially she wanted each section of the book to link to the next, but abandoned this project because “Love is not orderly”. Instead, the book is divided into twelve discrete sections that nevertheless overlap, mingling and blurring at the edges as if they, too, were steeped in the gathered honey of the book’s title. The novelist E.M. Forster once wrote that art is “the one orderly product” that humanity has created on Earth: love, even love in art, disorders life as it disorders art and artistry, and the arts may be measurable by their ability to construe love in all its varieties as that which defines people.
Certainly the poets anthologised here see love as a defining experience, and one that poetry returns to again and again. Indeed love poetry constitutes one popular and powerful conception of what poetry actually should be, and it’s no surprise to find many familiar standards in Dooley’s selection. John Donne, Robert Graves and W.B. Yeats, great poets all as well as great love poets and great poets of love, are well-represented here, but part of Dooley’s project is to extend the national and linguistic boundaries of the love poem (in keeping with Bloodaxe policy in recent years). Consequently many poems appear here in translation, from writers as diverse as Rilke, Miroslav Holub, Xu Zhi Mo and Pablo Neruda. Many contemporary poets are also included, extending the historical range of the anthology from the Renaissance and earlier (there’s an anonymous Irish poem from the 9th century here) through to the 1990s.
This cosmopolitanisation of the love poem works also to democratize it, spreading the reader’s reference out into less culturally-specific areas of romantic experience. This makes reading this anthology educational as well as emotionally enhancing, and opens up the emotional range of love poetry to new sources. The juxtaposition of poems from different areas, periods and attitudes towards love further dynamises the anthology, and allows even the familiar to be appreciated anew.
At times the call-and-response structure familiar from other recent anthologies is in evidence here too, for example in the placing of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s ‘Forget not yet the tried intent’ next to Gwen Harwood’s response, ‘Meditation on Wyatt II’. Wyatt’s skilful manipulation of rhythm and tone, his careful but seemingly effortless balancing of words and lines, appears as a kind of incantation, a sung series of injunctions:
‘Forget not yet, forget not this,
How long ago hath been, and is,
The mind that never meant amiss.
Forget not yet.
Forget not yet thine own approved,
The which so long hath thee so loved,
Whose steadfast faith yet never moved:
Forget not this.’
Harwood, in contrast, considers Wyatt’s formal literary thoughts in strictly literary terms, as metaphors, producing in the process a poem of profound, self-conscious intensity:
”The which so long hath thee so loved’
counting the pulsebeats foot to foot
our splendid metres limb to limb
sweet assonance of tongue and tongue
figures of speech to speech bemused
with metaphors as unimproved
as the crooked roads of genius
but our hearts’ rhymes are absolute.’
Such interplay between historically distant poets (Wyatt died in 1542, at the age of 39; Harwood in 1995, at the age of 75) affords a rare insight into how poetic conventions have modeled and remodeled the experience of love. Wyatt’s delicacy is matched by Harwood’s, which is yet utterly different in modality and mood; Harwood’s repetitions climb up the human body from foot to tongue, while Wyatt’s are stylistic, laden with the obligations of a courtly code of romance only echoed in Harwood’s language.
As an alternative, consider A.E. Housman’s ‘He would not stay for me’:
‘He would not stay for me; and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I took his hand and tore my heart in sunder
And went with half my life about my ways.’
To which contemporary poet Wendy Cope replies:
‘I think I am in love with A.E. Housman,
Which puts me in a worse than usual fix.
No woman ever stood a chance with Housman
And he’s been dead since 1936.’
Like Gwen Harwood, Cope is a modern woman poet responding (with her characteristic wit-on-the-verge-of-despair) to an older male poet. In each case the response is a transformation of the older poem, and in each case the response is, of course, half in love with the older rhyme. Perhaps the secret of a good anthology of love poetry lies in this discovery of covert ‘romances’ between writers of vastly different styles and periods. If so, Maura Dooley knows it.