‘When the God of Love Possesses, the Muse of Poetry Inspires’: Reflections on Love and Poetry


Kayode Taiwo Olla

A friend poet wrote something on Facebook some time before and there were a lot of comments then. Even though I don’t really think I commented on the post, it actually got my attention and got me musing further. What he said was this: ‘When a poet falls in love, they write poems.’ There were quite many comments of approval and acknowledging that. But then, I liked one comment I saw struck me and I liked it. The person asked: ‘And what happens if they fall out of love?’

Okay then. I’ll say: When poets fall in love, they write poems; when they fall out of love, they write poems. That was my answer to the question as I mused. They averagely don’t actually stop writing or something, as the response I read my friend gave went. When poets that are poets become lovers—yes, when poets become lovers they write; when poets become lovelorn, they write. And the literature produced thereby—they are two ends of a pole: Love.

I have known quite a number of people that were never really writers but who said they started writing poems when they fell in love with their first love or something. Though, because many of them never meant to take writing as a carrier, but just as an immediate private necessity—that is, simply the giving of expression to very private feelings meant only for private readership—because of this, these people I know were not to be poets for a lifetime. In fact, one spoke with me just before I started writing this, and who I have known to not be a poet as at now, though he writes essays—he said he took to writing poems when he had problems with his ex whom he had once loved the best in his life. Hmm, there again—that incredible duo: love and poems!

I wonder at times at such immensity of inspiration that seized lovers when we fall in love! Such feelings so powerful that we want—to use Samuel Coleridge’s terms—the best words in the best order, to express it! For some, it is music that is the recourse; for some it is art. But then, for many others it is the scribbling of the pen in lines that is the spontaneous psychic response.

I remember an interesting thing that Prof Niyi Osundare said to us when a friend and I went visiting recently and I gave him a copy of my new poetry collection Softlie—he commented that love is one universal, archetypal subject matter of poetry from time immemorial. And he added that even before writing developed in ancient Egypt and with the Semites, a lover would go into a cave and scribble drawings and pictorial lines on the cave wall, and would leave to allow his inamorata to come by and read the message of love passed across, she also scribbling something for him there, in response. We could only laugh and wonder at the symbiosis of love and writing!

Love is so archetypal, furthermore, that a very private love poem can actually speak to the public reader and more so when the poet is particularly dexterous in making this happen. The reader finds out that the world and experiences of the poet persona tend to bear some similarity with theirs. In a nutshell, they find something they relate to almost immediately. The private hence becomes public.

I cannot but wonder at the forcefulness and intensity of this poem of both private experience and public affinity.  It is one of the anti-apartheid South African poet South African Dennis Brutus: ‘Let not this plunder be misconstrued….’

Let not this plunder be misconstrued:

This is the body’s expression of need—

Poor wordless body in its fumbling way

Exposing heart’s-hunger by raiding and hurt;

              Secret recesses of lonely desire

              Gnaw at the vitals of spirit and mind

              When shards of existence display eager blades

              To menace and savage the pilgriming self:

Bruised though your flesh and all-aching my arms

Believe me, my lovely, I too reel from our pain—

Plucking from you these your agonized gifts

Bares only my tenderness-hungering need.

In my opinion, therefore, since African orature is basically public-oriented, African literature, including love poetry (and not just our political satires, that is), should be as much public-oriented as it is of some private experience too. By being public-oriented I mean, of course, that African love poetry should be able to mirror past or contemporary social or political experiences that Africans can relate with as in their society.

So then, for a poet who is a voice for the public, when he becomes a lover, one of the first things that happen to him is that he begins to write profusely. He writes to his lover, filing poems upon poems. These types of poems have usually been published further on in many cases of poets becoming lovers—and they are usually published because there is something of common experiences about it; something that lets the reader find themself, and find their own world too, in the poet’s own world.

Moreover, I guess it seems natural that poems inspired when poets are struck in the heart by the arrow of love are more powerful and forceful than those written simply for the carrier of writing or just to fit a literary purpose—though arguably so. They actually tend to be private and forceful simply because they are, in William Wordsworth’s words, the instantaneous flow of powerful feelings or powerful emotion recollected in tranquility. They carry words directly from the deep recesses of soul. A reading through Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and the poem ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ will astound you about the terrific intensity that passion expressed in poetry can sometimes exude. And some other times, though, it is expressed in much softer, and sweetly gratifying, degrees—the like of which are poems in the courtly love tradition of Neoclassic English poetry.

Really, then, it’s beginning to seem that the poet’s love poetry muse is nearer them when they are in love, more than when they are yet to be and are just fantasizing! I have sometimes compared what I call my ‘prior-love love poems’ with the in-love poems. The difference can be striking at times! Really, it seems for real when Love possesses, the muse readily inspires!

These feelings are pressing

in my heart—these feelings;

but they just won’t flow into words!

These words are heavy

on my lips—these words;

and they just won’t sound in voice!

How will I say them, baby; how do

I say them?  How do I put in words

worlds that are beyond me

in my belly!

These feelings are powerful;

these feelings are raw;

these feelings are too strong

to be expressed in words!

But put your heart to my art, baby,

and I will voice it

art-to-heart!

Yes, I will express it in colours of art

and paint the gentle sun kiss

on blossoming morning glory flower—

paint it in my lips’ tender brushing on

your rosy cheeks, baby!

Baby, I will paint for you a passionate

sucking of my butterfly-lips on the rose petals

of your lips and the nectar

in your tongue!

Yeah, I will paint the peering twilight sun

blush scarlet at the exciting sight

of a seeming one-man shadow

of you and me twogether!

[From an in-love poem by me, titled: ‘These feelings…’]

On the other hand, when a poet becomes lovelorn, they write as well. Some of the very good examples of this, I think, are Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet ‘Whoso list to love’, and also the whole collection The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love by Modernist poet W.B. Yeats which the subject is his lovelorn over the Modernist novelist Olivia Shakespear, his former lover. Hence, the theme of unrequited love, too, has been one of the major themes that has been shared by many a lyric poem. English Metaphysical poet John Donne (1571 – 1631) also engaged the subject quite a great deal, especially in his early poems on sexual love. The muse doesn’t seem to depart from the poet when they become lovelorn. As it seems, most poets find solace in scribbling their hearts out on paper again at this time.

And then, when poets eventually become lovers and they write spontaneously; or then again, when perchance they turn out to become lovelorn and again take to some profuse lonesome scribbling—most of the times, those lose pieces they come out of their solitude with tend to become their masterpieces further on, for a long time to come.

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