The link below is to an article that looks back at the life and work of poet ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay.’
The link below is to an article that takes a look at 5 of the best poems of John Keats.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
About 28 Wirrayaraay people died in the massacre near Inverell in northern New South Wales. Dunlop had arrived in Sydney in February, and the Irish writer was horrified by the violence she read about in the newspapers.
Moved by evidence in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre, Dunlop crafted a poem condemning settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime. It read, in part:
Now, hush thee—or the pale-faced men
Will hear thy piercing wail,
And what would then thy mother’s tears
Or feeble strength avail!
Oh, could’st thy little bosom
That mother’s torture feel,
Or could’st thou know thy father lies
Struck down by English steel
The poem closed evoking the body of “my slaughter’d boy … To tell—to tell of the gloomy ridge; and the stockmen’s human fire”.
The graphic content depicting settler violence and First Nations’ suffering made Dunlop’s poem locally notorious. She didn’t shrink from the criticism she received in Australia’s colonial press, declaring she hoped the poem would awake the sympathies of the English nation for a people who were “rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage”.
An early life as a reader
Dunlop, the youngest of three children, was born Eliza Matilda Hamilton in 1796. Her father, Solomon Hamilton, was an attorney practising in Ireland, England and India. Her mother died soon after Dunlop’s birth, and she was brought up by her paternal grandmother.
Part of a privileged Protestant family with an excellent library, Dunlop grew up reading writers from the French Revolution and social reformers such as Mary Wollstonecraft.
In her teens, Dunlop published poems in local magazines. An unpublished volume of her original poetry, translations and illustrations written between 1808 and 1813 reveals her fascination with Irish mythology and European literature. She was deeply interested in the Irish language and in political campaigns to extend suffrage and education to Catholics.
In 1820, she travelled to India to visit her father and two brothers. The journey inspired poems about colonial locations — from the Cape Colony (now South Africa) to the Ganges River — that explored the reach and impact of the British Empire.
In Scotland in 1823, she married book binder and seller David Dunlop. David’s family history inspired poems such as her dual eulogy, The Two Graves (1865), about the bloody suppression of Protestant radicals in the 1798 Rebellion, during which David’s father Captain William Dunlop had been hanged.
The Dunlops had five children in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, where they were engaged in political activity seeking to unseat absentee English landlords, before leaving Ireland in 1837.
Settler poetry and politics
When The Aboriginal Mother was published as sheet music in 1842, set to music by the composer Isaac Nathan, he declared “it ought to be on the pianoforte of every lady in the colony”.
Dunlop often wrote about the Irish diaspora in poems which were alternatively nostalgic and political. But she also brought her knowledge of the violence and divisiveness of colonisation, religion and ethnicity to her writing on Australia.
Her optimistic vision for Australian poetry encouraged colonial readers to be attentive to their environment and to recognise Indigenous culture. This reputation for sympathising with Indigenous people — and her husband’s arguments with settlers in Penrith about the treatment of Catholic convicts — were widely criticised in the press.
This affected David’s career as police magistrate and Aboriginal Protector: he was soon moved to a remote location. There, too, local landholders campaigned against his appointment and undermined his authority.
When David was posted to Wollombi in the Upper Hunter Valley, Dunlop sought to expand her knowledge of Indigenous culture, engaging with Darkinyung, Awabakal and Wonnarua people who lived in the area.
She attempted to learn various languages of the region, transcribing word lists, songs and poems, and acknowledging the Indigenous people who shared their knowledge with her.
She wrote a suite of Indigenous-themed poems in the 1840s, publishing poems in newspapers such as The Eagle Chief (1843) or Native Poetry/Nung-ngnun (1848). These poems were criticised by anonymous letter writers, questioning her poetic ability, her knowledge and her choice of subject.
Some critics were frankly racist, refusing to accept the human emotions expressed by Dunlop’s Indigenous narrators.
The Sydney Herald had railed against the death sentences of the men responsible for the Myall Creek massacre, and Dunlop condemned the attitude of the paper and its correspondents. She hoped “the time was past, when the public press would lend its countenance to debase the native character, or support an attempt to shade with ridicule”.
Dunlop would publish with one outlet before shifting to another, finding different editors in the volatile colonial press who would support her.
Poetry of protest
Dunlop wrote in a sentimental form of poetry popular at the time, addressing exile, history and memory. She published around 60 poems in Australian newspapers and magazines between 1838 and 1873, but appears to have written nothing more on Indigenous themes after 1850. This popular writing also contributed to poetry of political protest, galvanising readers around causes such as transatlantic anti-slavery.
The plight of Indigenous people under British colonialism inspired many writers, including “crying mother” poems that harnessed the universal appeal of motherhood.
Dunlop’s poems The Aboriginal Mother and The Irish Mother are linked to this literary trend, but her experience of colonialism lent her poetry more authority than writers who sourced information about “exotic” cultures from imperial travel writing and voyage accounts.
In the early 1870s, Dunlop collated a selection of poetry, The Vase, but she was never able to publish. Family demands and financial constraints precluded it.
Dunlop died in 1880. Like many women of the time, her writing was neglected and forgotten, until it was rediscovered by the literary critic and editor Elizabeth Webby in the 1960s.
Webby identified Dunlop as the first Australian poet to transcribe and translate Indigenous songs, and as among the earliest to try to increase white readers’ awareness of Indigenous culture. Webby published the first collection of Dunlop’s poems in 1981.
Today, communities and linguists regularly use Dunlop’s transcripts for language reclamation projects in the Upper Hunter Valley.
Last year, 140 years after Dunlop’s death, Wanarruwa Beginner’s Guide — an introduction to one language of the Hunter River area — was published.
At the launch, language consultant Sharon Edgar-Jones (Wonnarua and Gringai) movingly recited one of the songs Dunlop transcribed: revitalising the words of the Indigenous women and men to whom Dunlop listened, when so few white Australians were listening at all.
Eliza Hamilton Dunlop Writing from the Colonial Frontier, edited by Anna Johnston and Elizabeth Webby, is out now through Sydney University Press.
Poetry has made something of a comeback in popular culture, thanks to America’s Amanda Gorman, who read her performance poems at a presidential inauguration and this year’s Super Bowl. Gorman has been described as bringing poetry to the masses.
However, when it comes to the mainstream, poetry has long been hiding in plain sight. Gorman’s spoken-word performances, which have been compared to hip hop, drew attention to poetry in music lyrics. But poetry is also visible in movies and on TV.
These media representations are interesting because they show how poetry is popularly understood in connection with feelings. And that popular wisdom chimes with findings in cognitive neuroscience about how language and, by extension, poetry work.
Aside from films or TV series about poets, such as Dickinson or Paterson, poetry makes a cameo in some of our most iconic films, where it is said to represent or intensify a range of emotions. These include love (Before Sunrise), mad ambition (Citizen Kane), nostalgic patriotism (Skyfall), pride (Invictus), nihilism (Apocalypse Now) and trauma (The Piano).
Poetry, representative of emotion, is also frequently used to symbolise humanity. This is particularly apparent in films about clones.
In the Tom Cruise blockbuster Oblivion, when the clone Jack Harper recites a poem from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome this reinforces his legitimacy. In Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty misquotes William Blake:
Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.
What emerges from poetry’s onscreen appearances, then, is a popular understanding of it as an expression of human feeling and evidence of genuine humanity.
This intuitive understanding of poetry resonates with findings in cognitive neuroscience. Leaving behind theories of the brain that suggest it operates like a computer and theories of language that focus on “mental grammar”, many scientists now acknowledge the body and emotion as the foundations of both cognition and speech.
Of particular interest is the role of mirror neurons. These brain cells fire when an action is observed or performed, and they tell us a lot about how we understand the actions of others. They suggest understanding comes from a mirroring or imitation that takes place in the brain but is acted out or felt in the body.
An example is the contagious effect of a smile. When we observe someone smiling, we mirror that action to understand it.
Something similar happens when understanding language. Words contagiously move us. As neuroscientist Christian Keysers explains in The Empathic Brain, if you hear or read the word “lick”, the part of your brain that moves your mouth is activated to aid understanding. The same happens if you hear or read the word “kick”. As a result, we feel the meaning of these words in our bodies.
What about producing words? Speech is fundamentally a motor activity, which evolved from gesture. We are moved to speak, and we literally move — our lips, our tongue, our lungs, our stomach muscles, and often even our hands — to express ourselves.
As infants, we begin learning language in interaction with a caregiver, imitating the shapes of their mouth, and waving our arms and legs in excitement and frustration at the repetitive noises they make, until eventually we are able to imitate their sounds. Those sounds are accompanied by feelings, related most strongly to a desire to communicate beyond the boundaries of ourselves.
Of course, language develops into a more abstract system for communication. It can often remain a struggle, however, to give expression to feelings that are powerfully felt in the body, such as loneliness or grief or trauma. As John Hannah’s character says in Four Weddings and a Funeral, when trying to articulate his feelings about his dead partner, “Unfortunately there I run out of words”.
On poetry and pain
Rhymes and rhythms
This is where poetry comes in, making use of the rhymes and rhythms that have helped us find speech from infancy, calling attention to the auditory qualities of language to convey meaning through feeling.
If we can’t do it ourselves, we quote someone else’s words, instinctively and ritualistically associating poetry with the expression of emotion.
This link to emotion, as well as child-like speech, undoubtedly goes some way to explaining another popular idea about poetry: that it signals “madness”. Biopics of poets feed this stereotype by overwhelmingly choosing poets with mental illnesses as their subjects — for instance, Sylvia and Pandaemonium, portraits of Sylvia Plath and Samuel Taylor Coleridge respectively.
However, cognitive neuroscience — and popular wisdom — suggest poetry actually exemplifies an important truth about language and human nature.
While poetry is regularly denounced for “not making sense”, our cognition and our language do not arise according to purely rational principles.
We are bodies wrought by feeling. Robin Williams’ character simplifies this truth in Dead Poets Society:
We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.
The link below is to an article that reports on the winner of the 2021 Peter Porter Poetry Prize winner, Sara M Saleh, for ‘The Poetics of Fo(u)rgetting.’
The links below are to articles reporting on the 2020 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize winner, Bhanu Kapil for ‘How to Wash a Heart.’
For more visit:
Appalachia, in the popular imagination, stubbornly remains poor and white.
Open a dictionary and you’ll see Appalachian described as a “native or inhabitant of Appalachia, especially one of predominantly Scotch-Irish, English, or German ancestry.”
Read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and you’ll enter a world that’s white, poor and uncultured, with few, if any, people of color.
But as Black poets and scholars living in Appalachia, we know that this simplified portrayal obscures a world that is far more complex. It has always been a place filled with diverse inhabitants and endowed with a lush literary history. Black writers like Effie Waller Smith have been part of this cultural landscape as far back as the 19th century. Today, Black writers and poets continue to explore what it means to be Black and from Appalachia.
Swimming against cultural currents, they have long struggled to be heard. But a turning point took place 30 years ago, when Black Appalachian culture experienced a renaissance centered around a single word: “Affrilachia.”
Upending a ‘single story’ of Appalachia
In the 1960s, the Appalachian Regional Commission officially defined the Appalachian region as an area encompassing counties in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and the entirety of West Virginia. The designation brought national attention – and calls for economic equity – to an impoverished region that had largely been ignored.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty” in 1964, it was with Appalachia in mind. However, as pernicious as the effects of poverty have been for white rural Appalachians, they’ve been worse for Black Appalachians, thanks to the long-term repercussions of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial terrorism and a dearth of regional welfare programs.
Black Appalachians have long been, as poet and historian Edward J. Cabbell put it, “a neglected minority within a neglected minority.”
In 1991, after a poetry reading that included Black poets from the Appalachian region, Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker decided to give a name to his experience as a Black Appalachian: “Affrilachian.” It subsequently became the title of a poetry collection he released in 2000.
By coining the terms “Affrilachia” and “Affrilachian,” Walker sought to upend assumptions about who is part of Appalachia. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of the danger of the single story. When “one story becomes the only story,” she said in a 2009 TED Talk, “it robs people of dignity.”
Rather than accepting the single story of Appalachia as white and poor, Walker wrote a new one, forging a path for Black Appalachian artists.
It caught on.
In 2001, a number of Affrilachian poets – including Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson, Ricardo Nazario y Colon, Gerald Coleman, Paul C. Taylor and Shanna Smith – were the subjects of the documentary “Coal Black Voices.” In 2007, the journal Pluck! was founded out of University of Kentucky with the goal of promoting a diverse range of Affrilachian writers at the national level. In 2016, the anthology “Black Bone: 25 Years of Affrilachian Poetry” was published.
A unique style emerges
Many Affrilachian poems explore this dynamic, along with the tension of participating in activities, such as hunting, that are stereotyped as being of interest only to white Americans. Food traditions, family and the Appalachian landscape are also central themes of the work.
Affrilachian poet Chanda Feldman’s poem “Rabbit” touches on all of these elements.
Her poem shifts from the speaker hunting for rabbits with their father to the hunt as a larger metaphor for being Black in Appalachia – and thus seen as both predator and prey:
He told me of my great uncle who, Depression era, loaned white townspeople venison and preserves. Later stood off the same ones with a gun when they wanted his property.
An Affrilachian future
We reached out to Walker and asked him to reflect on the term, 30 years after he coined it.
Walker wrote back that it created a “solid foundation” that “encouraged a more diverse view of the region and its history” while increasing “opportunities for others to carve out their own space” – including other poets, musicians and visual artists of color throughout the region.
In her book “Sister Citizen,” journalist and academic Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “Citizens want and need more than a fair distribution of resources: they also desire meaningful recognition of their humanity and uniqueness.”
Affrilachian artistry and identity allows Appalachia to be fully seen as the diverse and culturally rich region that it is, bringing to the forefront those who have historically been pushed to the margins, out of mind and out of sight.
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In May 1803 a group of enslaved Africans from present-day Nigeria, of Ebo or Igbo descent, leaped from a single-masted ship into Dunbar Creek off St. Simons Island in Georgia. A slave agent concluded that the Africans drowned and died in an apparent mass suicide. But oral traditions would go on to claim that the Eboes either flew or walked over water back to Africa.
For generations, island residents, known as the Gullah-Geechee people, passed down the tale. When folklorists arrived in the 1930s, Igbo Landing and the story of the flying African assumed a mythological place in African American culture.
Though the site carries no bronze plaque and remains unmarked on tourist maps, it has become a symbol of the traumatizing legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery. Poets, artists, filmmakers, jazz musicians, griots, novelists such as Toni Morrison and pop stars like Beyoncé have all told versions of the tale.
They’ll often switch up the story’s details to reflect different times and places. Yet the heart of the original tale, one of longing for freedom, beats through each of these retellings. The stories continue to resonate because those yearnings – whether they’re from the cargo hold of a sloop or the confines of a prison cell – remain just as intense today.
Sourcing the story
As an academic trained in literary history, I always look for the reasons behind a story’s origins, and how stories travel or change over time. Variations of the flying African myth have been recorded from Arkansas to Canada, Cuba and Brazil.
Yet even as the many versions cut across the Black diaspora, the legend has coalesced around a single place: St. Simons. An entry in the Georgia Encyclopedia makes a direct correlation between the 1803 rebellion mass suicide and the later, literary folkloric tradition.
Why? One reason is geographic.
St. Simons, part of the archipelago that stretches from Florida to North Carolina, long remained separate from the mainland United States. This isolation allowed African customs to survive, where elsewhere they were assimilated or vanished. Historian Melissa L. Cooper describes the Gullah-Geechee people as cultural conservators, tasked in popular culture with the duties of preservation.
Serendipity also played a role in siting the story. When a causeway from mainland Brunswick to St. Simons was built in 1924, folklorists literally followed a paved route into the past. During the New Deal, the Works Project Administration funded an oral history project that involved interviewing formerly enslaved people, and the flying African story was recorded in “Drums and Shadows,” the classic volume that published interviews from the project.
One Works Project Administration interviewer recorded St. Simons raconteur Floyd White asking, “Heahd about Ibo’s Landing. Das duh place weah dey bring duh Ibos obuh in a slabe ship.”
They “staht singing and de mahch right down in duh ribbuh” – Dunbar Creek – and “mahch back tuh Africa.” But they never get home, White adds: “Dey gits drown.”
Floyd White is a key source on the flying African, though as the hackneyed written transcription of his interview suggests, questions linger. The Ebos, by his account, walk, rather than fly, across the water. White allows that he does not personally believe the myth; he says they drowned.
Stories change, song remains the same
The flying African, despite a genealogy rooted in St. Simons, has no single point of origin. A shifting present continues to rewrite the past. These differences across versions only underscore the strength of the myth’s central core.
Take how music is used. In almost every account of Igbo Landing, the Africans sing before they fly. They chant in a dialect of Bantu, one of Africa’s 500 languages: “Kum buba yali kum buba tambe, / Kum kunka yalki kum kunka tambe.” Those words don’t have a direct translation; the words, more often, get described as secret, magical or lost.
But since the 1960s, in many retellings, the Bantu has been updated to the hymn “Oh Freedom,” an anthem first recorded after the Civil War and later popularized during the civil rights movement.
The storyteller Auntie Zya recounts the Igbo Landing legend in a YouTube post. To make the tale more relevant to children today, she launches into the familiar refrain, “And before I’d be a slave,” using the hymn to bridge the myth and a long struggle for civil rights.
And then there’s Toni Morrison’s novel “Song of Solomon,” the very title of which links music and flight. In the story, the novel’s main character, Milkman Dead, pieces together mysterious lyrics to recover a hidden past. Once he understands the song, he leaps from a Virginia cliff and flies away. Or is it suicide? The ending is famously ambiguous.
Healing through flight
Like all powerful myths, Igbo Landing and the flying African transcend boundaries of time and space.
Experimental filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison perceives memories from Dunbar Creek as an “ancestral map.” In a poetic narrative she lays over a dance montage, she muses: “Dreams are reality, time is relative, and the past, present, and future are melding together.” Allison suggests that the cross-generational continuity of the myth nurtures her, sustaining her voice through centuries of violence.
Children’s author Virginia Hamilton, likewise, offers the flying African as a script for healing. Her most famous story, “The People Could Fly,” broaches the difficult subject of the Middle Passage, the leg of the slave trade in which Africans, tightly packed in slave ships, were transported across the Atlantic Ocean.
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Hamilton explains why some Africans had to leave their wings behind when forced to America. “They couldn’t take their wings across the water on the slave ships,” she writes. “Too crowded, don’t you know.”
How does a culture get those wings back?
Where some storytellers linger over haunting images, such as the chains supposedly still heard in Dunbar Creek, artists such as Morrison, Allison and Hamilton look forward. Their stories lay the groundwork for recovery.
Hamilton presents “The People Could Fly” as a direct form of hope. In a preface to her collection of that title, she explains how tales “created out of sorrow” carry Black America forward. She reminds readers: “Keep close all the past that was good, and that remains full of promise.” A painful past must be summoned in order to be redeemed.
Igbo Landing starkly illustrated, in 1803, how the choice between slavery and death was not a choice at all. Slavery, sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote, was also social death.
But it’s important to remember that joy doubles as a form of decolonization. Music threads through every version of the flying African legend. Magic words propel fieldworkers into the sky, “Kum yali kum buba tambe.” In song, our spirits lift.
And who among us does not dream of flight?
For many, this year’s Valentine’s Day will be like no other. If you are spending the day apart from your loved ones, and don’t fancy the card selection at your local Tesco, writing a poem can be a more personal way to reach out and connect. Indeed, to paraphrase John Donne, “more than kisses, [poems] mingle souls”.
Here are some poems to take inspiration from, as well as some prompts to help you get that first line on the page.
Make a list
In her sonnet, How Do I Love Thee, Elizabeth Barrett Browning demonstrates the effectiveness of staying power when it comes to writing romance. After setting out to count the ways, the poem sticks determinedly to its opening concept – how do I love thee – answering the question from every possible angle, reaching to “the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach”.
Poems for long distant loves in lockdown
How do I love thee demonstrates how incorporating a list within a poem can make for a persuasive and intimate piece of writing. We see this again, in an altogether sillier way, in Ways of Making Love, by Hera Lindsay Bird. In her poem, Bird unfolds a surprising and decidedly unsexy list of similes to “answer” the instructional title of the poem:
Like a metal detector detecting another metal detector.
Like two lonely scholars in the dark clefts of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Like an ancient star slowly getting sucked into a black hole.
Whether it’s heartfelt or more lighthearted, a list poem is an opportunity to remember the quirks that make up a relationship. Half prayer, half receipt, it can quantify the seemingly unquantifiable, as the need to find the next answer to the opening question forces you to think creatively and explore beyond the obvious.
Why not begin with a title like “Each Thing You Do”, and challenge yourself to at least forty lines. Or perhaps you might want to answer Barrett Browning’s original question in light of our 2021 reality:
I love you further than two metres;
I love you beyond the limits of my daily walk.
Ways of Making Love might not live up to the eroticism of its title, but Selima Hill’s Desire’s a Desire certainly delivers:
It taunts me
like the muzzle of a gun;
it sinks into my soul like chilled honey
packed into the depths of treacherous wounds;
In this variation of the list poem, Hill takes longing as her starting point and recounts its effects in sensual, almost painful detail. Similarly, in Kim Addionzo’s For Desire, the poet celebrates what it is to want without restraint or guilt, whether that’s “the strongest cheese”, the “good wine”, or “the lover who yanks open the door / of his house and presses me to the wall”. In Fucking in Cornwall, Ella Frears embraces the less-than-glamorous realities of sex and desire:
The rain is thick and there’s half a rainbow
over the damp beach; just put your hand up my top.
It may not be the stuff of the big-budget period drama, but it’s joyful in its nostalgia for the awkward fumbling of first love, as well as of the rainy delights of the English seaside.
Each of these poems celebrates the power of declaring longing and need; of articulating the body and what it wants.
Perhaps you’ll notice something familiar about the opening lines of Harryette Mullen’s Dim Lady:
My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin.
In this fast-paced ode, Mullen takes Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) — itself a parody — and effectively scribbles all over it. While she maintains the style of the original, she substitutes almost every word with a contemporary reference to mass consumer culture, rendering the whole declaration — and the love industry — joyfully ridiculous.
Dim Lady demonstrates the power of the re-write and celebrates the fact that poetry – like love – can be a playful and adaptable collaboration. Like the Zoom pub quiz and online escape room, Mullen’s word substitution is a game that can be played at whatever distance.
Why not each take Sonnet 130 and come up with your own versions using a different frame of reference. Types of plant? TV programmes? Biscuit brands? Then swap and compare results.
And remember, whatever style you decide to try this Valentine’s Day, keep in mind the poet Les Murray’s sage advice:
The best love poems are known
as such to the lovers alone.
When it comes to writing your own verse, remember, it’s the thought that counts.
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
How to write a love poem
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.