The Art of Love Poetry
All you need is love, goes the song. A new book by Erik Gray, a professor of English and comparative literature, suggests that all you need is love poetry.
Gray's specialty is Romantic and Victorian poetry, and his book examines the enduring question of why that genre is so often associated with love. He makes the case that it is the most sensuous of all forms of language.
“Poetry lies halfway between prose and music and combines the advantages of both,” he writes in The Art of Love Poetry, published by Oxford University Press last year. It highlights the physical pleasures of language while adding the sensuousness of rhythm. “It’s simply more erotic than any form of prose could be,” he says.
Love and poetry have been linked since antiquity. Gray delves into their shared history, starting with Plato, who in the 5th century BCE wrote that “the god is so skilled a poet that he can make others into poets: once love touches him anyone becomes a poet.”
Several centuries later, the Song of Songs in the Old Testament “gave license to expressions of erotic longing, so long as it was under the cover of this highly canonical work,” Gray said. Its sensual verses, which comprise a dialogue between two lovers, are read at many a wedding, including the 2018 nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, for verses such as this one: “Love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”
Gray also devotes a chapter to the subject of kisses in love poetry. Both are oral pleasures, he points out. “A kiss after all is a form of conversation of give and take, of self-exposure,” he writes. “Like a poem, it must make an appeal to another to complete.”
Marriage is a less frequent subject of poetry because its length, sameness and constancy tend not to fit as well with the brevity and intensity characteristic of lyric poetry. “Most love poems are about first love, unrequited love, passionate love and uncertainty,” he said. “Yet married love is just as intense and has its own subset of love poetry.” Gray himself opens and closes his book with his own poetry, dedicated to his wife.
There was a time when many people could quote the major poets of the day. Not anymore. “The poetic impulse is still here today, but the most popular poets are now recording artists.”
Take Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter who won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” according to his award citation. “That’s all poetry,” Gray said.