New poetry is gaining real momentum - meaning there's no excuse for unthinkingly copying out the old favourites any more.
Saying 'I love you' in verse is still the best way
As Valentine's Day dawns, and the need to scrawl meaningful thoughts on cards to loved ones becomes ever-more pressing, there's usually a get-out clause for those suffering from writer's block: poetry. William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 - "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" - or Robert Burns's A Red Red Rose usually do the trick.
Although Arabic poetry remains in fine fettle, in the West the form has been seen by many as a literary anachronism. But Jo Shapcott's surprise win at the Costa Book Awards last month proved that new poetry is gaining real momentum - meaning there's no excuse for unthinkingly copying out the old favourites any more.
This time last year, another poet, Christopher Reid, was celebrating beating the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín's bestseller Brooklyn to the 2009 Costa prize, and since then there's been incredible work from the likes of Seamus Heaney and the Iraq war veteran Brian Turner. In England, poetry readings are selling out, and while Shapcott won't quite commit to the idea of a renaissance, she has agreed that "poetry is always what people turn to in the important moments in life".
A new collection edited by John Stammers not only confirms that the form is in rude health, but helpfully guides the Valentine's Day card writers of the world in the right direction, too. The Picador Book of Love Poems features work by some of the finest modern names - including the likes of Don Patterson and Britain's poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy - and pairs each with a classic. Does Stammers agree with Shapcott, then, that poetry is what people turn to in times of need?
"Absolutely," he says. "As a poet, of course, I would say that, but it's interesting that when the twin towers went down in New York, people didn't start writing opera or painting watercolours. They instinctively started writing poems. It was the same when Princess Diana died. And that's because poetry is an art form of intense feeling. We think of poetry and love going together because love is, similarly, a vivid, all-absorbing state. Poetry's distilled, compressed form means it heightens that intensity."
The Picador Book of Love Poems stands out from the crowd because it isn't simply a compendium of slushy love poems hastily shoved together. Lorraine Mariner's Feathers amusingly details the experience of a man encountering a former girlfriend with her new boyfriend. Paul Muldoon's protagonist wonders how he's survived the "summits and sloughs" of 10 years of marriage and parenthood in Long Finish.
It's striking that most of these more realistic poems are from the modern era. Stammers says that it wasn't so much a deliberate choice in the editing process as a reflection of how we've changed as readers and writers.
"After a while," he sighs, "the traditional approaches are a bit worn out, aren't they? 'My love is like a red red rose' is a great poem, but you can't keep writing it. And I think we're more capable of tolerating difficult and edgy emotion."
Such dedication to realism means The Picador Book of Love Poems is likely to last well beyond Valentine's Day. Unrequited love is a staple of traditional poetry, but here there's also the fierce, stinging grief of love lost - most obviously encountered in WH Auden's fierce Funeral Blues. In these poems, the higher purpose of the book (and perhaps poetry itself) becomes clear. It's a comfort, a consolation.
"In the Simon and Garfunkel song I Am a Rock, there is the line 'I have my books and my poetry to protect me'," says Stammers. "Now, you know, that says it all. When something traumatic happens to you, you think over it again and again in your mind. And perhaps poetry comes from that feeling. It's a kind of expurgation. There's a poem in the book by Don Paterson called A Private Bottling, and it's such a brilliant title because that's really what a poem does - bottle an intense emotion. Of course, it's not just love - you can say the same for war. But not everybody goes to war. Everybody falls in love, hopefully. Everybody feels loss, ageing. They're incredibly strong inner experiences."
And yet, even though modern poets reflect our concerns about life and love in the most beautiful and bitterly realistic of ways, we still seem - in the English language, at least - to be somewhat afraid of the form. I put it to him that, in a way, poetry is a bit like jazz: baffling until that moment of epiphany when it all seems to make sense.
"Yes, it is a bit like that," he chuckles. "There's some sort of mental gate that needs to open, but once you see how it works, you're fine. This is something that as poets we do try to encourage in people because whatever people say about a renaissance, the numbers who buy and read poetry are still quite low.
"The thing is, most of the contemporary poets are great writers. It's not like you have to sit at a desk with a pencil in one hand and the poem in the other, trying manfully to work out what it all means. Poems don't have to be hard work. There is an engagement that has to happen, yes, because it's not a passive art form. But contemporary poetry is so readable, and that's why I was keen to get so much of it in the book."
So, On His Deceased Wife, by the 17th-century giant of the canon John Milton ("Methought I saw my late espousèd saint"), is teamed here with Matthew Caley's Abba CD. Initially, it seems like an odd coupling - Milton almost deifying his lost wife and Caley wryly poking fun at "those resourceful Swedes" of Knowing Me Knowing You fame. But read together, each does make sense in terms of the other.
"Yes, that's my favourite pairing, I think," says Stammers. "The diction is so different and yet they're essentially up to the same thing - talking in dreamlike fashion about wives coming back to them. But throughout the book, these poems and poets allude to each other across the centuries, speak to each other, disagree with one another. That was really interesting to me, particularly because it ended up forming a rather pleasing idea that it was like a relationship: two people engaged in the same thing but from their own perspectives."
The lesson from the book, though, isn't just that the modern poets deserve to be as revered or as widely read as their illustrious historical counterparts. It's that poetry endures, existing inside and outside of fashion.
"Oh yes, poetry will never go away, it's always going to be there, because it's the most basic human art form," he says.
"Put it this way," he continues. "if you go into a cafe and ask for a coffee in a certain way, there will be a nuance to it. The waiter will know if you've got up on the wrong side of the bed simply by the words you choose and the tempo in which you say them. Human beings are adept at picking up these tiny nuances, and in the end, that's what poetry is - an aesthetic conclusion to that experience."
So next time you order your latte, be careful what you say. It's poetry.
Eternal lines… fragments from classic love poems
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.
Had we but world enough and time
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To pass our long love’s day.
To His Coy Mistress
John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first acquent;
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bony brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson my jo.
John Anderson, My Jo
brent smooth; beld bald; pow head.
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth,
While the one eludes, must the other pursue.
Life in a Love
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
Sonnets From the Portuguese, 43
The Picador Book Of Love Poems (Picador) is out now