Elegy

Nadera Naeema Ohi

Ma, I didn’t know what to say to you today,
so I’m opening this diary to talk to you.

Sorry I don’t tell you these things in person. It’s just
that I can’t find the words, even when asked.
Some, I hope I never tell you. Not for a lack of trust
but because I imagine it and I am an aurai: 10,000 feet in the air, wings slashed.

Elegy - Illustration for Ohi

Lately, time doesn’t feel very real
I dream of a girl staring through the stained glass of a cathedral, and she has no reflection
… hey, did you ever get off those buses and wish you were back home for another meal?
Hey, how long d’you think the rest of me can survive this room, praying without direction –

Ma, I’m sorry I cried into your neck the other night.
I was thinking of the one certainty we can cling to
and how even after all this time, it is still a darkness so overwhelmingly bright – 
don’t worry about me. Goodnight, I love you.

Why It’s Okay To Not Love Poetry About Love

Love poetry with scales and roses hanging from a hand
Illustration by Joyita Faruk

It’s “romantic”, Not Romantic

“My love is like a red, red rose…” At an initial guess, who do you think first used this line – a famous poet, or some ordinary person? Whichever you answered, you’re partially right: long before Robert Burns put it to paper, a nameless admirer must have thought it up. 

That is both the beauty and burden of writing about love; it’s a universal emotion you can express in myriad ways, so long as there are people to hear it. But… if you have explored the same subject in poetry for centuries, doesn’t it become a tired trope?

The short answer: kind of! Reading classic romance poetry as a modern brown person, there is one main pitfall – it’s often not emotionally resonant. To illustrate this, let’s discuss three revered poems in literature.

A Dissection of Classic Love Poetry

1) Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

The subject is compared to a charming summer day, complete with literary hyperbole, and the speaker even promises that their muse’s beauty shall not be forgotten, so long as their art lives on. While the sentiment is pretty, it is difficult to connect to the poem at a practical level. The romantic love we see in our own lives (be it among our parents or in our own experiences) is not always as ideal as art and popular culture portrays, and wishing for perfection like the poet rarely succeeds. There is a sense of detachment between epical romances and the down-to-earth ones of our own – though fiction can be a welcome escape for some.

2) Emily Bronte’s Love and Friendship

“Love poetry” does include platonic relationships to a lesser prominence, but this is one which holds friendship in high regard. The poet uses an extended metaphor of the sweet but temporary rose-bloom, for romance, and the constant but plain holly, for companionship. While the imagery is effective, the common narrative in classic poetry that adoration is either ephemeral and inconsequential or greatly star-crossed, is an unfortunate one. Bronte adds to such contempt by suggesting that it is safer to disregard passion almost entirely in favour of cultivating friendship; but seeing the two as mutually exclusive is harmful, especially for those who wish to balance both. Ultimately, we as readers choose whether we value different kinds of love in the same manner.

3) Rumi’s Thou and I

There are themes of spiritual devotion here, which are implemented to create an alluring remark on love. The poet meditates on the symbolism of the afterlife, when they and their lover can be one and the same – and that even on earth and in different places, they each feel connected to the other. To be sure, the idea of true lovers sharing one soul is bewitching, and may resound with those who prefer to think of people in a relationship as a single entity. But from an individualist perspective, it can feel more liberating yet secure to accept a relationship as involving two complete souls that give happiness to one another, rather than two halves of a whole that must join for spiritual fulfillment.

What Do I Read In Love Poetry, Then?

Having examined three different poets and aspects of love in classic poetry, two questions remain: If these poems don’t resonate with you, then which might? And how do we engage with those?

On the one hand, slightly less overused poems by other renowned poets may click. It would be remiss not to mention Rabindranath, effusive in translation and deeply heartfelt in Bangla. Maya Angelou’s works are more recent classics, raw yet gentle: showcasing love in its seamless boundaries and in simple and touching ways. Sappho’s fragments from Ancient Greece are still vivid today.

On the other hand – there are more overrated love poems than just the ones analysed here, most of which fail to create a deep connection, lacking the pragmatism of real love. However, the quality of these poems depends on whether the beauty of the emotions portrayed are what draw you in, or whether they can resonate personally with the reader. The interpretations thus far were mostly based on the latter category; but what makes poetry unique amongst other art is that it is given meaning by the reader – so we are free to find what enchants us.