How do I Love Thee?

If there was ever any uncertainty as to whether troubadours have flourished after the likes of Shakespeare, Yeats and Burns, this evening’s PEN event laid all doubts lovingly to rest. Esteemed poets James Fenton and Jackie Kay joined the novelist Josephine Hart as chair to treat the audience to a literary love-in dedicated to all things amorous.

From the tenderness of whole-hearted devotion, to the pain and sorrow of rejection, Hart set the scene with a poetic exploration of love in all its many shades and complexities.

While Robert Frost was dedicated to romance, ‘Romantic love, that’s all there is/As in poetry and story,/Let the emotion be deep,/It can only be for one person,’ Yeats endured a lifetime burdened with the sorrow of unrequited love: ‘A pity beyond all telling is hid in the heart of love.’ Much of Emily Dickinson‘s work also centres on the drama of emotional loss, ‘Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell,’ while some of her lesser-known poems explore erotic love: ‘What is it that men, women doth repine?/The lineaments of satisfied desire.’ Hart suggested that the erotic can often be in fine balance with perversity and cited the almost savage eroticism in some of Yeat’s work, ‘I gave my soul and loved bodily,’ and Christina Rossetti‘s “shockingly erotic” ‘Goblin Market’.

Lest we forget the humour that can be found in romantic poetry, Hart recited Dorothy Parker‘s wry take on love in ‘Unfortunate Coincidence’: ‘By the time you swear you’re his,/ Shivering and sighing,/And he vows his passion is,/Infinite, undying/Lady, make note of this:/One of you is lying.’

Positively beaming and hugely entertaining, Jackie Kay stood, book in hand, to read a selection of her own poems. With her wicked sense of humour and effortless charm, she captivated and delighted as she took us on a beautiful, moving and at times hilarious journey of emotion. She began with ‘Late Love,’ which explored young love: ‘How they strut about, people in love/How tall they grow, pleased with themselves,/Their hair glossy, their skin shining./They don’t remember who they have been.’ The stirring ending: ‘The past with its rush of velvet, its secret hush/Already miles away, dimming, in the late day,’ triggered a spontaneous wave of sighs from the audience.

Her melodious Glaswegian accent did more than justice to her lilting, dreamlike poem ‘Spoons’: ‘We two sleeping like spoons,/Under the bowl of moon,/Gone soon, gone soon/Quine and loon.’ But most poignant of all was her poem ‘Darling’ about her loss of a loved one, a dear friend who had passed away. Who could not be moved by the words: ‘And what I didn’t know or couldn’t see then,/Was that she hadn’t really gone./The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones./ The dead are still holding our hands.’

Next to take to the stage, it was James Fenton’s turn to mesmerise and move the audience with personal favourites from his own edited collection: The New Faber Book of Love Poems. And what a selection. His dulcet tones seemed to linger in the air as he began with W. J. Turner‘s haunting poem ‘Romance’: ‘The houses, people, traffic seemed/Thin fading dreams by day,/Chimborazo Cotopaxi/They had stolen my soul away.’

W.D. Snodgrass‘s ‘The Last Time’ offered an achingly tender depiction of breaking up: ‘Three years ago, one last time, you forgot/Yourself and let your hand, all gentle,/Move to my hair, then slip down to caress/My cheek, my neck. My breath failed me…’ which ended with the words: ‘You recalled, then, the long/Love you had held for me was changed. You threw/Both arms around him, leaving him, and then you/Said you were ready and we went along.’

Fenton described his admiration for Charlotte Mews‘ “great courage” before reading aloud her intensely emotive poem ‘From a Window’: ‘But I mean to go through the door without fear,/Not caring much what happens here/When I’m away: – /How green the screen is across the pains/Or who goes laughing along the lanes/With my old lover all the summer day.’  

Noel Coward‘s poignant ‘I am No Good at Love’ received great murmurs of empathy, particularly when Fenton read the lines: ‘I kill the unfortunate golden goose/Whoever it may be/With over-articulate tenderness/And too much intensity,’ and the finale: ‘I am no good at love/I betray it with little sins/For I feel the misery of the end/In the moment that it begins/And the bitterness of the last good-bye/Is the bitterness that wins.’

The end of W. S. Graham‘s intensely moving ‘To My Wife at Midnight’ so moved the audience that an eerie emotional silence ensured when Fenton finished reading. He then read a selection of his own poems, including ‘Yellow Tulip’ and ‘I’ll Explain’: ‘It’s something you say at your peril./It’s something you shouldn’t contain./It’s a truth for the dark and a pillow./Turn out the light and I’ll explain.’

Of course, who better than Jackie Kay to read Robert Burns‘ ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ which, characteristically, Kay threatened to read with an Irish accent! What a delicious aural treat to hear her read: ‘Had we never lov’d sae kindly,/Had we never lov’d sae blindly,/Never met – or never parted,/We had ne’er been broken-hearted.’

The audience was hungry for more recitals of their choice and, at different members’ request, Fenton read Byron‘s ‘Remember Thee, Remember Thee!’ and ‘She Walks in Beauty’ as well his own poem ‘Nothing’, which he recited from memory. ‘I take a jewel from a junk shop tray/And wish I had a love to buy it for./Nothing I choose will make you turn my way./Nothing I give will make you love me more.’ Another request – which will perhaps surprise some for his little-known attributes as a poet – was for Kingsley Amis‘ ‘An Ever-Fixed Mark’, with the memorable closing lines: ‘Sex is a momentary itch,/Love never lets you go.’

The discussion then shifted to the subjectivity of poetry and the differing, sometimes surprising, interpretations that can surface from a particular poem. To illustrate, Fenton related the story behind his poem ‘The Ideal’. Following the end of a dictatorship in the Philippines, he explained how, to his dismay, most communists turned into “the most frightful right-wingers.” ‘The Ideal’ was intended to warn a friend “not to do that kind of flip”: ‘This is where I came from,/I pass this way,/This should not be shameful/Or hard to say./The self is a self,/It is not a screen,/The person should respect/What he has been./This is my past/Which I shall not discard,/This is the ideal./This is hard.’ Surprisingly, and touchingly, he later discovered that a couple had chosen the very same poem to be used in their wedding programme. “They took it as a totally different meaning, but that is not to say that it was a misinterpretation,” he said. Kay agreed that poems speak to and for people in different ways.

Another audience member asked whether the poets wrote only when they were in love or splitting up. “When something terrible happens, you’ve got just one thing: a poem, which makes you feel very good!” Fenton replied before aptly quoting the line from Walt Whitman‘s ‘Sometimes with One I Love’: ‘I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not returned,/Yet out of that I have written these songs.’ However, Fenton suggested that beyond the idea of writing as a type of catharsis, the poet also has an intrinsic urge to be published. “I don’t write poems not intended for publication,” he explained, “you’re writing in principle to get something across, not for your own private pleasure. In the words of Auden: ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?'”

Hart even suggested that “sometimes an awful need to be published is like being in love.” She continued: “Art and Eros have the same goal. You come with your offering and maybe it’ll work, or maybe it won’t, but you’re honour-bound to make the offering. It’s a great gift to write a poem and both Jackie and James have been blessed with this.” No one in the audience could disagree.

With warm thanks to James Fenton, Jackie Kay and Josephine Hart for their impassioned offerings and to Waitrose for very kindly supplying the wine.

Report by Alexandra Masters

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One Comment on “How do I Love Thee?”

  1. No mention of Shakespeare’s sonnet 116?!?!? You mention Kingsley Amis‘ ‘An Ever-Fixed Mark’, and, correct me if I’m wrong, but I would assume the title was inspire by a line in Shakespeare’s sonnet (it is an ever fixed mark that may look’st on tempests but is never shaken)…

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