Who do you love?
Love, in whatever sense of the word we please, must surely be the principal theme of poetry. Even poems of loss and grief come to exist, almost always, because of the loss of, and the grieving for, someone or something—some moment or age or place that was once loved and is loved still. The friendships, marriages, and the relatively few love affairs mentioned in Chinese poetry, either lost or hoped for, and the landscapes presented there, are figures of each poet’s—and so of each reader’s—life and feeling. They evoke its evanescence, its fragility, its unique, irreplaceable character. Those feelings are present in every kind of love poetry.
In the West, love poems have been part of the ageless current of folk poetry before any of that was written down. Poems of erotic longing survive from Sappho’s Greek and the Greek anthology, and from Catullus, and from early Persian and Arabic poetry. The great flowering of the theme in Europe—which became so prevalent that we now take it for granted—came in the 12th century with the poetry of the troubadours and their view of life, which came to be called Romantic, and then romantic. That heritage remains unbroken. One can turn on the radio and hear it in country music, or find it in Poetry magazine.
1. Ben Jonson, “Song to Celia” (“Drink to me only with thine eyes. . . .”)
Ben Jonson, great classicist that he was, was carried along by love. His immediate influence was the current that ran through Dante and Petrarch to the love sonnets of Shakespeare, or came from the late Latin elegies. Both strains are here in “Song to Celia,” which is—I trust—still so well known as a lyric that many who have sung it often, and perhaps even know it by heart, may not have considered it a poem or be aware that it is in fact a translation of two brief passages from letters by a minor Roman poet, Philostratus (numbered XXXIII and XXXII). Johnson’s lovely poem retains the elegance of the conceit that figures in the original Latin: the notion that the beloved’s glance, touch, kiss, even when bestowed upon some token between them, convey her whole self and continue to evoke her presence.
But whatever its source and its brilliance, there is no way of accounting for the intimacy, the simplicity, and the memorable transparence of language in this poem. It is not surprising that it has been so popular, for so long, that it is possible now to miss its perennial youth.
2. John Milton, “Methought I saw my late espousèd saint”
Milton is not usually thought of as a love poet, and though there are passages of baroque sensuality in his poetry they occur mostly in works of his mature years, particularly in Paradise Lost, where they are framed in theological argument and Biblical mythology.
Leaving aside the love of God, which is Milton’s central theme, the single great poem of his that is unquestionably born of human love, of his incomparable relation to one person whom he loved, is this sonnet, written in the latter part of his life. When included in anthologies, it is not always accompanied by a note informing the reader that at the time Milton wrote the sonnet he was blind, and that he had been blind when he married his “espousèd saint” and so had never seen her. So this is really a poem about Paradise: a place that he had not seen but that he had lost even so, in time, and a place that he clung to as a remembered apparition. Although it contains no overt sensuality, it is so vibrant with longing that it seems, as one comes to know it, to be wholly made of desire, of hope born of despair, a descendant in poetry from Dante’s longing for Beatrice and Jaufré Rudel’s for his inaccessible belovèd. The sonnet form of Milton’s poem also derives from the Italian Romance tradition. And for all its intricate syntax and structure, its brocade of erudition and lack of any erotic reference, it is a revelation of profound tenderness and of a desire that carries within it his whole sense of his own self. It is an expression of immeasurable suffering that manages to touch upon innocence—or almost. There is nothing in his work that seems greater to me than this short poem.
3. Jaime Sabines, “You have what I look for. . . .” (from Pieces of Shadow, translated by W.S. Merwin)
Jaime Sabines, who was from the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, is one of a series of great poets from Latin America who began to write in a new vein in the early decades of the 20th century. Poetry is a passion in Hispanic America. The great 20th-century Latin American poets came from different countries and disparate indigenous backgrounds, but they drew upon common influences to produce a current of poetry that was unlike any other: still romantic, but with a new wildness and an authority that seemed ageless.
Sabines’ poetry—from his first book, published when he was 25, to his last, published when he was 70—is at once raw, “barbaric” as it has been called, and as direct and indisputable as some of Whitman. The erotic vein runs through all of his poetry, unabashed, naked, and not pretending to be anything else. The present poem is the quintessence of that, and indeed of much of Sabines’ poetry.
It is an expression of a desire that knows without question what it wants, physically and magnetically, and says so without hesitation or coarseness, its very plainness a kind of purity. I think of it in the company of some of Catullus and of fragments of Sappho. The feeling behind it must be around us everywhere, in every generation. It is exploited, falsified, travestied, cheapened, fancied up. Poems beyond reckoning have tried, and keep trying, for the worst and the best reasons, to put it into words. This is one that does it, without wasting a word.
4. Randall Jarrell, “A Man Meets a Woman on the Street”
Jarrell was one of the luminous poetic intelligences of his brilliant but short-lived generation. He was never the best-known poet among his contemporaries, though others of his age—Lowell and Berryman in particular—had a high regard for his poetry, his judgment, his integrity and originality. Some critics have seemed to miss his poems’ power and depth because of the deceptively prosaic, downplayed, and offbeat phrasing of some of his best works. Sometimes the force of the poetry depends upon the oddity of what is being said, an effect that is far less simple to achieve than at first it seems. In a manner very different from that of his contemporary Theodore Roethke, Jarrell incorporates the perspective and phrasing of childhood into some of his later poems.
Though one does not find either of those in this late poem of his, it comes after a series of poems in which the child’s viewpoint, coming from an unexpected angle, alters the whole vision. The present poem is filled with a great tenderness, sophisticated and deepened by long familiarity. A playful but confident strain of physical desire runs through it. The maturity, the ripeness, contribute to the erotic feeling. It is a poem about cherishing and experience, about loving someone after years of being together, passion and wisdom walking “arm in arm / Through the sunlight that’s much too good for New York. . . .”—a rare subject, and he prizes the precious rarity.
5. Stanley Kunitz, “Touch Me”
This is a poem that I heard Stanley read before I read it myself. I was sitting in the front of the audience, a few feet away from him, and I remember how the poem struck me. (I was not alone. I heard sudden intakes of breath all around me.) How wonderful that such a current should leap from a love that had ripened and aged through half of a long lifetime, while the lovers’ bodies had gradually lost the spring and pulse that were theirs when they first knew each other. The shifts of perspective in this masterful, apparently simple, and deeply passionate poem go by so fast that they may not be noticed at first.
Stanley, in late years, is leafing back through notes he had made—in hopes that they would become poems—half his life before. There he finds one phrase about summer (the middle of his life?) being late. “Words plucked out of the air,” he says, “when I was wild with love”—and not only young then, but feeling younger than his years. When he finds the phrase again (and finds it filled with a life he could never have guessed at), it is autumn—indeed, late autumn. As he is putting his beloved garden to bed for the winter, he realizes that “it is my heart that’s late,” and suddenly he is kneeling to the sound of the end-of-season trilling of the cricket, and is caught by the recognition of “desire, desire, desire” that is the single, ceaseless source of every manifestation of life, including his own. It is the loved one, the companion of his own age, who must make him remember that. And as he turns to her in the late poem, the words would also remind those much younger than Stanley, who were listening then, and those who would come to listen to him later.
W.S. Merwin is a prolific, leading American writer whose poetry, translations, and prose have won praise over seven decades. His first book, A Mask for Janus (1952), was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Though that first book reflected the formalism of the period, Merwin eventually became known for an impersonal, open...