“The” Love Poems – Join the Conversation

At the 2013 Palm Beach Poetry Festival, the American poet Jane Hirschfield (1953 -)  was asked to pick a poem that had inspired her.  She demurred by saying she owed most to all the poets who have been sharing their words for the past 40,000 years.

And  Greg Orr (1947 – ), another fine American poet (see previous Blog – O is for Orr) frequently references the The Book in his recent books of lovely small poems. For him The Book contains all the songs and poems ever written.

Both these poets capture an essential thing: we never write in a vaacum. Each poem or song we write is an echo of other voices: the crying out of what it is to be human. But sometimes the echo is very specific and very direct. Often a poet will write a poem directly influenced by another. Sometimes the influence is credited. Other times not.

At the Palm Beach Festival I was fortunate enough to be in a workshop with the 2010 National Book Award winner, Terrance Hayes (1971 – ). One of his exercises was based on using other poems or an aspect of other poems as a launching off point for your own poem. This made me curious to find other examples and later that day I asked Pete Fairchild (1942 – ), acknowledged as one of the finest narrative poets of his generation, if he had written a poem that was deeply influenced by another. Without hesitation he said:  The Grapes, by  Anthony Hecht (1923 – 2004) was a large influence in his poem Freida Pushnik. And although these two dramatic monolgues are very different  the impact of The Grapes on Fairchild’s poem is clearly evident once you know the connection.

But already I had another example – two poems, written almost 400 years apart, but deep in conversation! They are  Love III  by George Herbert (1593 – 1633) and Love After Love by Derek Walcott ( 1930 – ), the  1992 Nobel Prize Laureate in literature. I owe the credit for the connection to these two poems to my former wife, Susan. I have seen one interpretation on-line that Walcott’s title references a failed relationship. But when you put the two poems side by side clearly Walcott’s poem is after Herbert’s. Closely connected.

Love III           

 Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back
            Guiltie of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
            From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
            If I lacked anything.

 A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
            Love said, You shall be he.
I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
            I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
            Who made the eyes but I?

Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
            Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame
            My deare, then I will serve.
“You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
            So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert
  (1593-1633) from George Herbert – Poems selected by Jo Shapcote, Faber and Faber, 2006

George Herbert is considered one of the major English poets and certainly one of its finest devotional poets. After resigning his seat in Parliament in in 1626 he became an Anglican priest and became Rector of Bemerton, a small parish outside Salisbury. His first book of poems – The Temple – appeared the year he died in 1633. The novelist and poet Vikram Seth, a longtime fan of Herbert’s, now lives in Herbert’s house.

Now, here is Walcott’s poem:

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott from Collected Poems – 1948 to 1984Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986

As in any masterful poem influenced by another, Walcott’s poem stands on its own merits and its differences are notable. While the Herbert poem is overtly religious the Walcott poem isn’t and the Walcott poem doesn’t include a direct conversation. Yet what a link they share. And specifically, Herbert’s last line So I did sit and eat is so close to Walcott’s and say sit here. Eat.

What I so appreciate is that Walcott’s poem is not a copy, it grows out of  Herbert’s poem. It becomes a celebration of self acceptance; of selves of the self feasting on all aspects of a life – its joys and its sorrows.

Walcott’s poem is an on-line favorite and used by countless inspirational speakers. I use it frequently in my poetry writing workshops at drug and alcohol recovery centers. The last line, so influenced by Herbert, is such a celebration of what it is to write poetry and to read it  – truly, a feasting on a life. But what I like is that it stands in conversation with another poem from a very different time and sensibility. How it shows that one poem can be so influenced by another but stand separate within its own integrity.

Two outstanding poets. Their poems talking back and forth across the centuries. What a feast!

One Comment

  1. Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for introducing Herbert’s poem and showing how poems talk across the centuries!

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