A delicate act is learning the secrets of love
The pen slips in scribing the word of error
~ Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil (translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqi)
Love poetry is a genre within poetry. Even those poems which speak against love, the lack of love or spew venom against the lover, are all love poems. Vasko Popa’s ‘Give Me Back My Rags’ and Marina Tsvetaeva’s ‘An Attempt at Jealousy’ are wonderful examples of two poems out to deride the lover for the sake of love, or the loss of love. Popa’s voice in rage and Tsvetaeva’s in tensed control, both achieve a rare feat in love poetry.
Jorge Luis Borges’ accusation of Tagore being “incorrigibly imprecise” is a genuine problem with a lot of poets. Mystic poets hide the body in the name of the heart and are deaf to the body’s intricate music. Many traditional ghazal writers also suffer this lack, where the heavy metaphors of feelings dominate over – and silence – a more palpable language of desire. But you can still admire the lyrical forthrightness of Mah Laqa Bai:
na gul se hai ġharaz tere na hai gulzār se matlab /
rakhā chashm-e-nazar shabnam meñ apne yaar se matlab.
(No use for your flower, nor for your bed of roses
I care only for my lover, kept in the glance’s dew)
Ghalib’s love-couplets, unlike Tagore’s, are woundingly precise. Some of their tropes are overfamiliar today, though some, like un ke dekhe se jo aa jaatī hai muñh par raunaq… can still evoke a wry smile.
There is an almost untranslatable Bengali love poem by Jibanananda Das. It’s more delicate than the tenderest poem by Tagore. The last stanza goes:
জানি আমি তুমি রবে– আমার হবে ক্ষয় / পদ্মপাতা একটি শুধু জলের বিন্দু নয়। /এই আছে, নেই; এই আছে, নেই– জীবন চঞ্চল; / তা তাকাতেই ফুরিয়ে যায় রে পদ্মপাতার জল / বুঝেছি আমি তোমায় ভালবেসে।
(I know, you will be, I will erode, / The lotus-leaf isn’t just a water-drop. / Here, gone, here, gone, this vacillating life, / In the wink of an eye, the way water vanishes on the lotus-leaf, / I understood, loving you.).
Love, like poetry, is difficult to translate, but lives on in translation. All that is lost in translation becomes desire. Translation is a desire for the impossibility of the other’s language.
The fragments below have been chosen with diligence. Though with a heavy heart, fragments from Tamil, Swahili, French and other languages, had to be left out. The rationale behind picking these 27 pieces of poems is subjective. Precision, wonder, and boldness of expression, scored. Simplicity is a virtue in love poetry, unless you are John Donne. 27, for I wanted no less, but no further.
to love is to undress our names:
“let me be your whore” said Héloise,
but he chose to submit to the law
and made her his wife, and they rewarded him
~ Octavio Paz, ‘Sun Stone’ (translator, Eliot Weinberger)
[Mexican poet Octavio Paz won the Nobel Prize in 1990. His influences include Spanish and Nahuatl strands of Mexican poetry, Wordsworth, Mallarmé, Breton, T.S Eliot., and Tantric and Zen Buddhism.]
Now I know why it hurts so
to tear hand from hand,
lips from lips,
when the stitches tear
and the guard slams shut
the last carriage door.
~ Jaroslav Seifert, ‘Struggle with the Angel’, (translator, Ewald Osers.)
[Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert won the Novel Prize in 1984. A journalist and communist, his poetry shines with a rare, rebellious sensuality.]
You come from the poor South, where my soul began;
in that high sky your mother is still washing clothes
with my mother. That’s why I chose you, compañera
~ Pablo Neruda, ‘Sonnet XXIX’, (translator, Stephen Tapscott.)
[The Chilean Neruda, who picked his name from Czech poet, Jan Neruda, won the Nobel Prize in 1971. His fellow-comrade, García Márquez, said, “’Neruda was a kind of Midas.” More memorably, Lorca called Neruda, “’a poet closer to death than to philosophy, closer to pain than to insight, closer to blood than to ink.”]
And I knew when I entered her I was
high wind in her forests hollow
fingers whispering sound
from the split cup
impaled on a lance of tongues
on the tips of her breasts on her navel
and my breath
howling into her entrances
through lungs of pain.
~ Audre Lorde, ‘Artefact’
[African American, librarian and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde described herself, “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”.]
Awaking from a dream, you look for
Your youth, as if it were the body
Of the comrade who slept
By your side and whom you can’t find at dawn.
~ Luis Cernuda, ‘The Shadow’ (translator, Rick Lipinski)
[Spain’s Cernuda lived in exile in the U.K since the Spanish Civil War. Besides Lorca, he was one of the most lyrical gay poets of the 20th century.]
I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.
~ Adrienne Rich, ’21 Love Poems’
[American, Jewish feminist, Rich’s Diving into the Wreck split the 1974 National Book Award for Poetry with Allen Ginsberg, The Fall of America.]
I am late already,
The shadows are fading.
The cattle have returned
From the forest.
The birds have raised their clamour,
O roast my store of sorrows in your pan.
Tender of the fire.
~ Shiv Kumar Batalvi, (translator, Suman Kashyap)
[Punjabi poet, Batalvi, won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1967. Humorous, gentle and solemn, his famous song that was recently included in a film, goes, ‘A girl, whose name is love, has disappeared’.]
You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire
~ Anna Akhmatova, ‘You Will Hear Thunder’, (translator, D.M. Thomas)
[Russian poet Akhmatova, dissident-poet against communist dictatorship, her lyrical masterpiece, Requiem, against Stalin’s purges, was published only after his death. With amused grace she bore, Andrei Zhdanov labelling her, “Half-nun, half-whore”.]
If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
don’t try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.
Like this. Like this.
~ Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī, ‘Like This’, (translators, Coleman Barks and John Moyne)
[The Afghan Rūmī, a dervish among poets, wrote in Persian, but sometimes used Turkish, Arabic and Greek in his poetry. A mystic at heart, his spirituality was sensuous, and his sensuality, spiritual.]
No one understood the perfume
of the shadow magnolia of your belly.
No one knew you crushed completely
a humming-bird of love between your teeth.
~ Federico García Lorca, ‘Gacela of Unexpected Love’, (translator, A. S. Kline)
[Spain’s Lorca, Europe’s most beloved 20th century gay poet, was executed by fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. In Poet in New York, he celebrated Black life and music and condemned White America. In his Ode, Neruda wrote, “Because for you they paint the hospitals blue”.]
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead – or almost
I seem to me.
~ Sappho, ‘Fragment 31’, (translator, Anne Carson)
[Greece’s Sappho, mother and muse of lyric poetry, one of the earliest queer figures in literature, was accused for her woman-love. She is the bridge between a place and sexuality: Lesbos and Lesbian.]
Come love let us sit together
In the cramped kitchen breathing kerosene.
There’s fuel enough to forget the weather,
The knife is ours and the bread is clean.
~ Osip Mandelstam, ‘Night Piece’, (translator, Christian Wiman.)
[Russian dissident poet Mandelstam had to pay for his life in a Siberian camp, for writing ‘The Stalin Epigram‘, against the Soviet strongman. Akhmatova, his close friend, wrote an ode to him. Paul Celan did a radio play on his poetry.]
I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you.
~ Yannis Ritsos, ‘Moonlight Sonata’, (translators, Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley)
[The Greek communist poet Ritsos won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975. His resistance against the fascist regime cost him long confinements. In jail, he wrote on cigarette paper and buried his work in bottles. In a poem he wrote after visitng Neruda’s house in Isla Negra, Chile, Mahmud Darwish paid tribute to Ritsos.]
Before you arrived, things were the way they are
the sky, the eye’s horizon,
the path a path
the glass of wine a glass of wine
~ Faiz Ahmed Faiz, ‘The Colour of My Heart’ (translation mine)
[Pakistani communist poet Faiz won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962. His role against military dictatorship made him face a jail term and brief exile in Lebanon. He turned the Urdu phrase, “Hum Dekhenge” (We shall see) into a song of resilience and hope.]
Wait for her and do not rush.
If she arrives late, wait for her.
If she arrives early, wait for her.
Do not frighten the birds in her braided hair.
Take her to the balcony to watch the moon drowning in milk.
Wait for her and offer her water before wine.
~ Mahmud Darwish, ‘Lesson from the Kamasutra’, (translators, Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché)
[ThePalestinian Darwish was exiled in his own country. Inspired by Rimbaud and Ginsberg, his Arabic poems were an act of reclaiming his land, of being Arab, of being reduced to an identity card, of suffering too much beauty.]
He has two loves,
He has two loves,
I go to see him off.
I meet the other woman.
I cannot go on,
I cannot go back,
I burst into tears.
Anonymous (Akan, Ghana), Love Songs, (translator, J. H. Kwabena Nketia)
[The Akan language (also known as Twi–Fante) is the principal language in Ghana. It has a tradition of women poets powerfully depicting the everyday erotic life of Akan folk life.]
I say goodbye when I approach you, Love,
as this age and this gray would have me do.
There was the shadow of the earth and sun
and, oh, the heart of a heartless boy in you.
~ Umberto Saba, ‘Love’, (translator, Geoffrey Brock)
[Italy’s Saba, a blurry gay poet who had a wife, converted to Judaism at the age of 37. He lived a life of heavy depression, and was prescribed injectable opium for it. He was deeply influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis.]
…her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say, her body thought.
~ John Donne, ‘Elegy on Mistress Elizabeth Drury’
[England’s Donne, is a well-known metaphysical poet, known for his inventing metaphors. He influenced many great poets after him, including Coleridge, Browning and T.S Eliot.]
I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
~ Sylvia Plath, ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’
[American poet Plath, clinically depressed, took her life in 1963. She won the Pulitzer posthumously in 1982. In The Bell Jar, she wrote, “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. / I am, I am, I am.” Melancholic, defiant, suicidal, she saw the world of relations, inside out.]
My sisters think of me and weave,
and the house is full of familiar steps.
I alone am gone and far away,
and I tremble like a plea
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Eranna to Sappho’, (translator, Edward Snow)
[German poet Rilke was told to spend a week in the zoo, Jardin des Plantes in Paris, by the sculptor, Rodin. The experience made him a poet. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke famously said, if one could live without writing, one should not write.]
This morning I will not
Comb my hair.
It has lain
Pillowed on the hand of my lover.
~ Kakiomotto no Hitomaro, Untitled, (translator, Kenneth Rexroth)
[Japanese poet Hitomaro was an aristocratic, waka court-poet to Empress Jitō, in the late Asuka period (592-645). He is regarded among the four greatest poets in Japanese history.]
O you are green all over,
put your hands like a burning memory in my loving hands
and entrust your lips like a warm sense of life
to the caresses of loving lips
The wind will carry us away with it
The wind will carry us away.
~ Forough Farrokhzad, ‘The Wind Will Carry Us Away’ (translator, Anita Spertus)
[The Iranian poet Farrokhzad was an iconic figure, synonymous with the rebellious spirit of Iranian women. She could, with sensuous audacity, show off her vulnerability. Abbas Kiarostami’s film, The Wind Will Carry Us, is a tribute to the place her poetry has in Iran’s cultural life.]
My beloved speaks Turkish, and Turkish I do not know;
How I wish if her tongue would have been in my mouth.
~ Amīr Khusrau Dehlavī, (translator unknown)
[Delhi’s Khusrau, who wrote in Persian, Urdu and Hindavi, also spoke Arabic and Sanskrit. He invented the Qawwali, and also contributed to the ghazal. Musical styles like tarana and khayal are attributed to him. In his poetry, among other things, he turned “colour” into a metaphor of love.]
I earn our meeting
Holding you for a while,
My day’s wages.
~ Amrita Pritam, ‘Daily Wages’, (translators, Charles Brasch with Amrita Pritam)
[Punjabi poet Pritam is known for her epic, ‘Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu’, an elegy on Partition and the 18th century Punjabi poet, Waris Shah. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1956. Rarely did a lover speak of the beloved’s shadow, the way she wrote of Sahir Ludhianvi: “Walking at some distance from Sahir, I noticed that where his shadow was falling on the ground, I was being engulfed by it entirely.”]
Night without end. I cannot sleep.
The full moon blazes overhead.
Far off in the night I hear someone call.
Hopelessly I answer, “Yes.”
~ Anonymous (Chinese), (translator, Kenneth Rexroth)
[This poem in classical Chinese was written during the period of ‘Six Dynasties’, (220/222–589.]
Clinking in the dark, let the house’s windows ring,
telling each other what they know, but without finding out:
we love or we do not love each other.
~ Paul Celan, ‘Poem for Marianne’s Shadow’, (translator, Victor Pambuccian)
[Romanian-born, German poet Celan experienced the death of his parents in the Holocaust. He was torn between being Jewish and being a German poet. The line which is most associated with his memory is “Black milk of daybreak” from ‘Death Fugue’, a modern folk-poem of fascist horror. Celan committed suicide by drowning in the Seine in 1970.]
I am sitting with language-lovers
Now evening goes, slowly, it goes.
The embrace comes to mind –
The quiet smiling face comes to mind.
There is poison in the blood, o’ beloved
Now life goes, slowly, it goes.
~ Bhaskar Chakraborty, ‘In the Restaurant’ (translation mine)
[Bengali poet Bhaskar was almost a secret until recent times, even within Bengal. He called himself an “absentminded lake”. There is a ghostliness about his poems that reverberates with a strange depth, where the obscure is familiar and the familiar, obscure.]
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet and writer. He lives in Delhi.