Love poems for the lockdown: From Shakespeare to Carol Ann Duffy, verses on intimacy, distance, desire
From Ted Hughes' poems on Sylvia Plath to Kim Addonizio's take on past love, an offering of poetry apt for the lockdown.
Many people are not lucky enough to be with their loved ones this Valentine’s Day. If that is the case, or if you simply want suitable words to mark the day, then there are plenty of long-distance love poems that you can reach for, to share or to read for comfort.
Some of them can be found in unexpected places, such as Song of Solomon, also known as Song of Songs, a book found in the Old Testament. But if you want an account of longing at a distance, a celebration of sexual intimacy, praise for lust and passion, then this is where you’ll find it: “How much better is thy love than wine!” declares Solomon, “By night on my bed I sought him…” speaks his lover. The lovers were not married and lived separately, and were perhaps in the early days of their courtship. The verse describes their visits to each other in erotic detail, and their yearning for each other when apart.
A slightly more traditional and obvious source for love poetry in the English language is, of course, William Shakespeare. Sonnet 98 gives us a meditation on love and distance. In it the speaker is so distraught that their lover is not present, they can no longer recognise the beauty of nature, even as spring bursts into bloom around them.
Love lost and changed with time
Distance is not always about a physical measurement of proximity though, it can also relate to the passing of time. Lost love, love that is no longer and first loves are all forms of love that are unreachable through time.
One example that speaks to this kind of love can be found in former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, his final collection. Hughes’s relationship with his first wife, poet Sylvia Plath, has been much written about. People have long been fascinated with the turbulent trajectory of their relationship and the tragic end to Plath’s life.
Many years after Plath’s passing, Hughes produced a collection of poems that he wrote throughout the decades after her death. It was published months before his own death and it can be read as an homage, a marking, an exploration and a final word on his passionate relationship with Plath:
I look up – as if to meet your voice
With all its urgent future
That has burst in on me.
For a more contemporary take on past love, I recommend reading Kim Addonizio, who has previously won the Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation award and many other accolades. Love is a topic she returns to in her work time over. In her poem 'Stolen Moments' she takes the reader back to the early throes of love, to an instance where it feels like love will never end, in which she finds a perfect memory of what it is to feel in love:
Now I get to feel his hands again, the kiss
That didn’t last, but sent some neural twin
Flashing wildly through the cortex.
Alice Willitts’ recent publication With Love is a collection in which every single title begins with the word “love”. In her poem 'love /' couples who sleep in separate rooms live longer, she refuses to trade possible health benefits for the joy of being able to:
…open a dozy eye
right into your precious face
Love from afar and in the moment
Another former poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, explores the complete arc of a romantic relationship, from the heady beginnings to the crashing end, in her collection Rapture. The opening poem, 'Text' takes us through feelings of anticipation, excitement and desire as experienced in a brand new relationship. The moment of waiting for a lover’s message to appear on your phone, the thrill of the ring tone as it is received, the compulsion to read and reread it, over and over.
I tend the mobile now
like an injured bird.
We text, text, text
our significant words.
In the past year Duffy has invited poets from around the globe to write directly of their time during the pandemic. This has resulted in a large body of poetry, which will act as a record of lived experience from the pandemic’s earliest stages.
In the scores of poems on the project website, it is interesting to see how the themes of distance and relationships have shone through. For the poet Kim Moore:
now distance is a physical thing
that has crept into my heart
One of the most thought-provoking poems on the site draws on our primal need for intimacy as humans. It’s a need that cuts through familial, platonic and romantic relationships. In her poem 'Harbour' Grace Nichols is willing to trade all, “for the simple harbour of a hug”. If you are unable to reach for a hug this Valentine’s Day, then finding one in a poem could be the next best thing.
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