Truth about love: New lyrics of loss, and joy, for grown-up Valentines

After an age of irony, love poetry for adults has returned. And often it takes the form of the elegy.

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 12 February 2010 01:00

As card-senders and speech-makers well know, poems can grace almost any occasion. Good ones, too, as well as the corny doggerel. So what might a modern-verse adviser have to offer a fugitive from romance who steers around the candy-floss cloud of Valentine's Day in dread or disdain? Tough and sassy refugees from passion might enjoy the smart upending of show-song and movie tag-lines in Carol Ann Duffy's "To the Unknown Lover", just reprinted in her sour-sweet selection of Love Poems (Picador, £12.99): "Horrifying, the very thought of you, / Whoever you are...".

Stoical loners will cherish Fleur Adcock's ever-popular squib "Against Coupling", in which the sardonic New Zealand-born poet writes "in praise of the solitary act". She treats the sort of tryst that takes two with the jaded weariness of "the lady in Leeds who/ had seen The Sound Of Music eighty-six times". Rather than go round the block one more time, she recommends that "Five minutes of solitude are/ enough-in the bath, or to fill/ that gap between the Sunday papers and lunch".

No, Sappho or Keats it is not, but at least Adcock's been-there, done-that aversion to amour bespeaks a kind of contentment. Not so Philip Larkin, at any stage of his career. His infamous, posthumous poem "Love Again" sounds weirdly like the title of a Richard Curtis movie. It does in fact deliver not so much the methadone as the cold-turkey treatment for any modern swain tempted to act the fool for love. "Love again: wanking at ten past three/ (Surely he's taken her home by now?)," begins this rank dissection of jealousy, with its "usual pain, like dysentery" – and of the old wounds that lie beneath new scars: "Something to do with violence/ A long way back, and wrong rewards,/ And arrogant eternity."

One can imagine that the Larkin estate might do well out of some punk competitor with Hallmark Cards. In a time when serious poets, and serious poetry readers, learn from their schooldays that romance is a defunct ideology and "sentimentality" in verse tantamount to crime, a love poem without irony, anguish or regret from a major-league 21st-century English-language poet sounds as unlikely a feat as a bel canto opera full of hummable arias or a panoramic history painting on a town-hall ceiling.

How revealing that editor Laura Barber's richly eclectic anthology, Penguin's Poems for Love (Penguin Classics, £20), can end on a high note of snigger-free commitment only by turning to one of those pop icons whose unabashed lyricism thrives outside the narrow poetry system of judgement and reward: Leonard Cohen. "Raise a tent of shelter now/ Though every thread is torn/ Dance me to the end of love..."

Although the Poet Laureate's bracing choice of her own love poetry does allow for pieces that sting with desire and devotion, the rhythm of Duffy's book means that partings shadow meeting right from the start. It ends with the bleak renunciations of "New Vows", with its bitter reversal of ritual promises: "From this day forth to unhold,/ to see the nothing in ringed gold, /Uncare for you when you are old."

So far, so grim, and so snugly in the spirit of the age. Yet sweeter winds are blowing. Raptly intense love poetry, free of naivety but immune to cynicism, has returned. And its vehicle is the elegy. Grief and mourning seem to license poets of quality to celebrate a passion and intimacy in the past that they find unapproachable while it still lasts. Like Orpheus in the underworld, distinguished poets now look back on loved ones lost beyond recall.

Last month, Christopher Reid deservedly won the Costa Book the Year Award for A Scattering (Areté, £7.99), his finely wrought and deeply felt sequence of poems in memory of his late wife, Lucinda Gane. "I live in a memory/ the size and shape of a house", Reid writes. His verse about "a marriage and its legends" fills that house of tender recollection with a painstaking custodian's care for every stick of the emotional furniture. Oddly, Ted Hughes had in 1998 taken the Whitbread prize (foreunner of the Costa) for his brasher and darker elegiac narrative about Sylvia Plath: Birthday Letters. And, another dozen years before that, the very first overall award went to the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn for his own series of farewells to his wife, Elegies.

Across the Atlantic, the mental havoc wrought by Aids in the 1980s and 1990s meant that gifted gay poets had to find and hold an elegiac note earlier, and for longer, than they ever would have wished. The epidemic threw up its own verse landmarks, in outstanding collections such as Thom Gunn's The Man with Night Sweats and Mark Doty's Atlantis. It could be that here, as in other areas of modern art, gay pathfinders have helped to light the way for a following majority.

Maybe the work of mourning opens up in sophisticated and self-analytic poets the routes to feeling blocked off in more stable times. The trigger of bereavement may also take the form of the end of an affair, rather than the physical loss of a partner. Carol Ann Duffy's volume about the growth and death of love, Rapture (2005), contains some of her most powerful pieces. Here, poems of bliss such as the Shakespearean sonnet "Hour" ("Love's time's beggar, but even a single hour,/ bright as a dropped coin, makes love rich") have an open-throated timbre that the omens of loss somehow makes easier to sustain.

Call it a conundrum, a paradox, or just the knot tied in clever versifiers by a too-knowing epoch. Whatever the reason, for ecstasy, read elegy. These days, poetic love takes on most depth and truth in retrospect. Moreover, the elegiac sequence allows poets to tell a story and so reach many readers who prefer their exposure to modern verse to lead them through a clearly defined beginning, a middle and an end.

In 2005, the Welsh poet and physician Dannie Abse lost Joan – his wife of 54 years – to a motorway accident. Abse had written often, and memorably, of the stages of love ever since his debut back in 1948. But his chief literary respsonse to bereavement seemed to come initially in prose. His journal of loss, loneliness and survival, A Presence (2007), did offer a sprinkle of elegiac poems, but mostly took the form of a captivating journal. With an invigorating fusion of heartbreak and humour, it told of the widower's life, or rather afterlife, under "the benign tyranny of a most loved ghost".

Now this grief has borne a second fruit. The title of Abse's new collection of poems, Two for Joy: scenes from married life (Hutchinson, £15), tells its own tale. More than half of these 50 poems of conjugal bliss, of rows and renewals, are newly written. Artfully spliced with earlier work, they trace a couple's shared journey in a mood of gratitude and tribute more than lament. "Inexplicable splendour makes man sing," as a final "Postscript" has it, "as much as the pointlessness of things".

Here, the full point of death fails to carry any message of pointlessness. By turns crisp, jaunty, nimble and witty, Abse's fleet-footed verse draws on every dimension of a rich joint life: movies, music, babies, medicine, cities, suburbs, country, families, travels, quarrels, and passages of sweet togetherness. Thus he composes "Something old-fashioned/ a story of Time perhaps/ or, more daringly/ of love".

Now, however, as "After the Memorial" puts it, "our marriage book is drowned/ (there seemed magic in it)". The poet, a kinder, funnier Prospero (Abse echoes and quotes throughout without a trace of pretentiousness), inspects the "weeping scar" of loss. Yet he never lets its pain erase his skittish freehand sketches of pleasure and delight. This is a happy scene, even a comic one, though viewed here through a veil of intermittent tears.

Without bereavement to draw time into an arc, would these poems have ever coalesced into quite such a shapely pattern? Only their maker (and perhaps not even he) will know.

At any rate, Two for Joy confirms that the mature poetry of love and the mature poetry of loss have re-established a close kinship. It also shows that mischief and urbanity – the verbal brio that Abse has in abundance – can sit comfortably alongside intimacy in a poetry that treats the winding path of love as a journey for consenting adults.

So lovers present and future can find a poetic alternative to old-style schmaltz on one hand hand, and new-wave rancour on the other. And, curiously, it looks as if the prism of eventual severance gives a focus to verse that revisits love's birth and blossoming. Perhaps the sense of an ending quickens the poetic pulse, "leaving us wide awake" (as Abse writes in "The Runners") "hearts beating together/ in the astonishment/ of the real". That astonishment will always taste better, for longer, than sickly chocolates munched in what he calls "the easy valleys of Pretend" – on any day of the year.

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