When Caitlin Thomas, Dylan Thomas’s wife, was asked by a journalist how she felt about having some of the most beautiful love poems in the world written to her, she reportedly shrugged and said, “Ach, he would have written them for any blond bitch.” This acidity is quite in character for Caitlin, possibly the only partner who could have kept up with party-hearty Dylan, even to the point of her drunkenly asking “Is the bloody man dead yet?” and trying to climb on top of him while he was expiring in hospital on his death-bed.
But there is some bitter truth in her remark too. Even while male poets have one eye on the women they’re trying to seduce, the other is often looking over her shoulder to the hussy they’re actually trying to bed—posterity. Is that true of female poets as well? The treasure trove of unpublished poems found under Emily Dickinson’s bed might suggest otherwise, but even the woman who damned publication as “the auction of the mind” also framed her poems as letters to the world “committed/To hands I cannot see.” In any case, for the most part the love poems that are immortal are those any lover can speak to any beloved, telling them that they shouldn’t admit any impediments to the marriage of true minds (Thanks Will!), or that it’s impossible to count the ways they’re loved (Thanks Liz!), or that, although we may momentarily repress the memory of them after they die, black-plumed birds will forevermore be sitting on busts above our doors to refresh our torments. (Thanks Edgar!...I think.)
But there’s the other kind of love poetry that merely passes itself off as universal, the Hallmark “How I was blue/Until I met you” variety that, while it attempts to speak for everybody, in fact speaks for nobody to nobody. Why do we enshrine the universal but scorn the generic, and what’s the difference between the two? Perhaps we can sense the difference between doggerel that’s scattershot into the dark somewhere above an unseen audience’s head and a poem, even on the most abstract of subjects, that’s delivered eye-to-eye and breathed into another person’s mouth. Though the poem’s not addressed to us, and may not even speak to our own situation, its intimacy and authenticity manifest the truth of Montaigne’s dictum that every person “bears the whole stamp of the human condition,” leading us through the individual to the universal and giving us a window into not just into the poet and the person addressed, but into ourselves.
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