Saying we love someone can take all our courage, our wisdom, our foolishness. Often we don't know how to say it. When we do get to say we love someone, sometimes we reach for the pitch known as poetry. Of all the art forms, poetry and song relay love most immediately. A book of all new work (Australian Love Poems 2013, edited by Mark Tredinnick) shows how poetry can stretch the message to screaming point, or say it all in a few seconds. Poetry allows us to say just how silly we feel or can make of a simple admission, something sublime.
Michael Sharkey asks profusely:
The sky that falls in children's tales,
the tide that ebbs, the moon's Swiss cheese,
Nijinsky's dance. Stravinsky's Flood;
what if I said you're all of these.
While Petra White forces a needful perspective:
Hogging both time and world,
soul of another's
body, making us
as we make it,
no fighting for it,
it blasts doubt out.
And the singer Paul Kelly opts not for the big ballad this time, but the minimal haiku:
Time is elastic
Together, days disappear
Apart, seconds crawl
Anyone writing love poetry needs be aware of the pitfalls of sentimentality. 'When we kissed,' claims Michael Crane, 'peach trees in China / did not blossom.' He distances himself further by considering:
Maybe there is no genius
in a kiss, just a hunger
a thousand centuries old
and a need for comfort
willow trees can not fathom.
Sentimentality though is not to be confused with sentiment. Every poem in the book expresses sentiments, from the passionate to the objective, the innocent to the experienced, the idealistic to the cynical. Peter Rose's Catullan persona says of love-making, 'It's more intimate / and exacting than one of his feeling lyrics.'
And indeed, love poetry expresses by knowledge and a little art the desires and experiences that necessarily remain inexpressibly personal to the individual. Anne M. Carson writes about 'honing / the human, so we too become vast, / and all that is paltry in us, blown away.'
It is true to say that most poems are written for love's sake, for what the Greeks call agape; still, most of this collection is tangled up in eros. The book confirms the given that love poetry in English means the erotic before other forms of love, i.e. affective and familial love, love of nature and nation, let alone the supreme love of God. Be that as it may, we are not alone when we read Bronwyn Lovell:
Outside the world is silent
after a light fall of rain that
must have come while we
were not looking or caring
for anything more
than each other.
Nor can we ignore the truth in Cate Kennedy's 'Ode to Lust':
It doesn't need to have a bed;
its teeth pull off your underwear;
it likes you driven from your head,
legs round neck. Clothes over there.
Freud was not the first person to advise that eros doesn't last. Relationship is about communication and change, so the poems are arranged to track different states in love's life. Poets talk things through to themselves, yet they talk to us. Poets talk to the one they love, or to us about the one they love, so it can get tricky. Quietly they let us in on secrets, or other times let it all hang out. Reading 200 love poems at once, we start hearing people talking to each other. We wonder if Poet A is actually mad about poet B, if Poet Y wants to take Poet Z to Paradise, or dearly wishes them in the other place. The book sets up such connections and moods.
Anthologies reflect the character of their anthologists. This book was shaped by someone who knows first loves and losses, resolutions and fresh starts. He likes the variety of forms, favouring clear expression, strong images, and striking analogies. Tredinnick has cited Hafiz and the Sufi tradition as a guiding principle in creating the collection.
This is spoken voice poetry from the heart, direct speech but heightened, tending to the ecstatic. We hear its poetic example in the deep breath lines of Anne Walsh Miller: 'You're written in me in the before antiquity language of snowflakes. / Landing everywhere on me so thickly that you're on me and in me and on my tongue / (you on my tongue is why I talk beautifully like snow under a streetlamp).'
Are Australians Persians? To judge by the evidence of this book they are more forthcoming than might be assumed, at speaking of love. Trademark laconic is there, but also a delight in syntactical play and unexpected words. Gender and orientation are not issues, even if relationships are. Shyness and bluster live as neighbours with bubbliness and raunch, but then also melancholy and regret. Survival, like love found, is a good in itself. There is an intelligence at work frequently in the use of allegory and trope that is almost courtly. But one conclusion is certain: when 632 Australians submit 1501 new love poems to a tight deadline, it has to be said, they're up for it.
Philip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.