Affairs of the heart: Our affection for love poetry shows no sign of fading

Our love affair with love poetry’s as old as time and showing no signs of fading, writes Rita de Brún.

Time was when the Bible was considered the oldest book and ‘Song of Songs’ the oldest love poem. That changed with the discovery of Istanbul #2461, a romantic composition from 2000BC or earlier.

Inscribed on a clay tablet, it was supposedly written to be read aloud by the bride-to-be of Sumerian king Shu-Sin. It promises “trembling caresses” and pleasure in a “honey-filled bedchamber”. That its content is as erotic and relevant today as it was when penned is a testament to the sensual pleasure of love in all its timeless essence.

Most of us don’t hear much about love poetry nowadays, but we can, when pressed, utter a few favourite lines. Mine come from John Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’ which was published in 1633: “For love, all love of other sights controls,. And makes one little room an everywhere.”

There’s no shortage of love poems being written today, according to Poetry Ireland’s Paul Lenehan: “If you include a daughter’s love for a father with dementia (Jane Clarke) . Or a mother’s love for a new-born child (Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Jessica Traynor). Or a son’s love for a father (John O’Donnell).”

Would he agree that most ordinary people not involved in the arts can name several love poets from the past but none amongst contemporary poets? “Not sure if it’s true,” he replies. “But if it is, it’s presumably because poets from the past have had decades and even centuries for their reputations to be established.

Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ contains some of Lenehan’s favourite lines — “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds” — to remind us that true love will never depend on the surface or the superficial, he says.

Ask Former Fianna Fáil minister Mary O’Rourke for her favourite love poem and she’ll choose ‘Raglan Road’.

“Patrick Kavanagh must really have been in love when he wrote that,” she says. “Hilda Moriarty was a medical student at UCD when he fell for her. He was a lot older. When she took him home to Dingle to meet her family at Christmas-time, I think her father might have told her to get herself a new man.”

This she did. She married Donogh O’Malley, who later became minister for education.

I met both Hilda and Donogh many years ago in Athlone, but always remembered Patrick Kavanagh was her earlier love. I always thought Kavanagh must have been deeply in love with her. Otherwise, how could he have written: ‘That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue’?

Most poets write at least some love poetry, according to Lenehan. “The love poem is still an essential rite of passage for all poets. Most celebrate and commemorate the various developing stages of their relationship/s in a poem, as did Seamus Heaney in ‘The Skunk’ and ‘The Underground.’

As a student teacher, Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O’Connor was taught by Heaney.

“It was a great honour. I love his poem, ‘Scaffolding’, which was written about marriage and given to his wife, Marie, after a row.

“When I read it, I think it also applies to friendships and even to the unconditional love we have for family members. All these relationships are built on resilience and on an investment of self, if they’re to last.

‘Make sure the planks won’t slip at busy points, secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.’

“And when I read the last line, ‘Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall Confident that we have built our wall.’ it calls to mind how you feel when a loved one passes away. The strong bonds, the scaffolding of respect, love, friendship that’ve been built over many years remain intact like the wall; you may be devastated by their passing, unsteady in yourself, but the wall remains solid because of the attention and all that you’ve both invested in it.”

She’s also enamoured by Yeats’ Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, and recites the lines: “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

For Lenehan there’s no mystery as to who the contemporary poets who “tend towards love poetry” are: “Vona Groarke, Colette Bryce, Rosamund Taylor, Paula Meehan, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Victoria Kennefick, Paul Muldoon, Mícheál McCann and Theo Dorgan.”

I know their work, but again seek it out and am gladdened by the splendour of their lines. Poet, writer and lecturer, Theo Dorgan “cannot bring himself to trust a poet who hasn’t written a love poem”, by which he means “a poem that values some other more than it values the self”.

“Love chooses us blindly,” he says, “according to laws nobody has yet understood — nor is it likely that anyone ever will — and so it is with poems: just as we cannot decide to love or be loved, we cannot decide to write a poem — better and truer to say the poem writes us.”

Theo Dorgan

He says every true lover will understand what he means when he says love is free surrender of the heart. “And so will every poet who has written a true love poem.”

Mary Mitchell O’Connor wonders if Shane MacGowan took inspiration from Yeats when he co-wrote Fairytale of New York. ‘I put them with my own, Can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you.’

“Undoubtedly, a modern day poet,” she says and few could disagree.

On A Day Far From Now

—Theo Dorgan - after a line by Cesare Pavese

Death will come and have your eyes

and I will go into her arms

without fear or hesitation.

Frost on the slates

of our beloved square,

the cars riding low under

a hurrying sky when

I open the great hall door

and take her hand,

her long black coat.

The bare-flagged hallway, frost

and perfume on the night air.

I watch her let down

her gleaming hair,

open her slender arms

in your exact gesture.

Death will come and have your eyes

and I will go into her arms

alone and unafraid.


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