Can you imagine the number of people racking their brains, mustering the courage, desperately trying to tell each other what they feel, especially today? But how do you find the right words to describe a feeling? Feelings are hard to explain. I struggle to fit the words in my head, with what is in my heart. Which is why perhaps, when it comes to love, we turn to poetry. A poem can capture that elusive feeling, and actually pin it down with words.
‘I don’t know what scares me more,
you wanting to know my secrets,
or my willingness to share them’
Poetry as an expression of love goes back a long, long way. Thousands and thousands of years ago, it was whispered into warm ears on cold, starry nights…until we learnt to write. The oldest love poem was inscribed on a clay tablet, and recited by a bride of a Sumerian king, in the hope of fertility and all that comes with it.
‘in the bedchamber, dripping love’s honey
let us enjoy the sweetest thing’
- The Love Song for Shu-Sin (2000 BCE)
It lay locked away and forgotten in a dusty museum drawer, labelled plainly as ‘Istanbul #2461’, until it was discovered and translated. Since then, there have been so many more - across the ages, empires, languages, and cultures, trying valiantly to capture the intense longing, imperfection and suffering that come with love; and the blinding joy…
‘…an airplane made of man and woman,
wings and all,
we soared a bit from the earth,
we flew a bit’
Poets use a variety of literary devices to try and reflect the complexities of feeling. Metaphors, tone, similes, rhymes, symbolism and imagery, are all used to tug our strings. When Rumi says, ‘wish to see you with a hundred eyes’, I feel my skin burn. And when I read,
‘longing for love
I place a single strawberry
in my mouth’
I feel the emptiness in mine.
Love poems have a way of insidiously toying with our hearts. But I’ve been told there is a rational explanation for it. Scientists have identified specific areas of the brain, at the back of the head that light up in response to poetry. Behavioural experts say, the deep visceral reaction is because poems play on all our senses. The imagery appeals to our sense of sight, we hear a musical pattern in the rhyme and meter, there are smells hiding in words, and as we read, we begin to immerse slowly, and completely.
‘her hand upon her hip she placed,
and swayed seductively her waist,
with chin upon her shoulder pressed,
she stretched herself to show her breast’
-Kalidasa (5th Century)
No wonder then, lines written in passion, so many centuries ago, still resonate in our hearts; the world keeps changing, emotions don’t.
‘Im going in 2 this not knowing what i"ll find
but I've decided 2 follow my heart and abandon my mind’
It is not only emotions that have remained unchanged. The other somewhat permanent fixture, as you might have noticed, is the dewy moon. Textbooks blandly call it the ‘oblate spheroid’, but poets use more lyrical terms.
‘every month the moon attempts,
to capture the beauty of your face,
and, having miserably failed,
erases the work to start afresh’
- Dharmakirti (7th Century)
It appears and reappears, in various forms, across continents and cultures.
‘from a pot of wine amid the flowers, I drink alone beneath the moonshine without a partner
raising my cup, I invite the moon and turn to my shadow which makes us three’
- Li Bai
Each one of us here, looks up to see the same moon. Poetry touches our heart because it revolves around shared human experiences. We recognize. We connect.
the homeless cat, too
cries for love’
- Kobayashi Issa
It is often difficult to know, why we do what we do. Poems help us understand, and sometimes express ourselves. And when it comes to matters of the heart, it is a complicated mess. Passion, fear, hope, anger, heartache, jealousy…are all forever entangled in love. But undeniably, one emotion that sits right in the centre of it, is desire.
‘if you hug
a body, bones
must crunch and crumble
weld, the welding must vanish’
- Akka Mahadevi (12th Century)
Desire is such a powerful emotion, it evokes strong feelings in the listener because it is both, intensely personal, and also reassuringly universal. It forces us to confront the duality of human nature – the push and pull between reason and emotion.
‘give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand, then a hundred’
- Catullus (84 BCE)
The kissing comes naturally, but everything else is not so easy. Love comes with disappointments,
I give her the rose with unfurled petals.
and crosses her legs.
- Suniti Namjoshi
‘I would say
I love you with all my heart,
but that's not quite right,
for I love you with far much more.
than just that one part’
‘if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little’
- Pablo Neruda
‘easing in her slender forearm for his pillow
- Matsuo Basho
‘have patience, my love,
don’t take off my clothes yet,
though parrot is asleep,
mynah is still awake’
-Keshavdas (17th Century)
The aftermath of desire has its own rhythm,
‘the tender words she spoke so sweet,
last night when in his arms she lay,
she hears the parrot now repeat,
and blushes at the break of day
-Amaru (8th Century)
Sometimes the bed is hot, and sometimes it is cold -
‘lying together in the bed,
they kept a sullen silence grim,
and not a word to her he said,
and she refused to speak to him’
- Amaru (8th century)
And sometimes we sleep alone.
‘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
The morning brings light.
Life in all its magnificence and glory, can also be a little overwhelming. And when we grapple with existential questions of why and what we are doing here, love helps us find a place. I realise, there is nothing I can say about love, that has not been said before. And so, for the past few days I’ve been borrowing, and reading and feeling and reciting poems. This piece is just a small attempt to bring some lines into our lives, in hope that there will be a glimpse of truth.
Ekta Kumar is a Chartered Accountant and an MBA from IIM Calcutta, as well as a Fellow, EUVP (European Union). She was a news anchor and now writes opinion pieces for various publications in India and abroad. She collaborates with several European organisations on human rights, to promote SDG’s and gender equality. Her debut book is expected to come out soon.
She can be reached at