To paraphrase the film (500) Days of Summer, this isn’t love poetry. These are poems about love.
Female poets are a bit on the underrepresented side in occidental culture; and when you consider how underrepresented poets full stop are at the moment, then you realise that that’s a helluva lot of underrepresenting going on. To remedy the belief that women didn’t bother with poetry until Plath and Duffy came along, Jill Hollis compiled this rather marvellous selection of poetry written by women on themes in and around love – spanning from the 16th Century to the present day.
The book does not follow the traditional anthology structure of one poet at a time in strict (estimated) chronological order; instead Hollis has loosely grouped poems together that complement each other, either because of their similarity in themes, imagery etc – or because of their complete and utter difference. In this way you’re never really bored if you’re just sitting down and reading through, but it doesn’t really matter if you read them out sequence either; with some anthologies it almost seems as though they are made deliberately hard to dip into, as if to test your faith and commitment to the ancient and noble art of poetry. I can speak from experience when I say that it’s a very good book just to have on you and read randomly from when you’re waiting for someone to show up, or the pasta to boil.
Hollis has also picked a very good range of poets from the better known names, such as Emily Brontë, Carol Ann Duffy, Sylvia Plath and Queen Elizabeth I, to ones which were very popular once upon a time but have, for whatever reason, fallen out of favour of late, like Aphra Behn, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Dorothy Parker and Stevie Smith. Of course, this is an extremely small selection of the poets featured – there are some more obscure, and even more famous too – but hopefully you get the picture. It’s quite extraordinary to have so many different poets from so many different eras, with all their attendant stylistic kinks and hallmarks, and for it to work. Owing to the nature of the chronology in this book (i.e. non-existent) if you aren’t so keen, or willing to try out, a certain person or style then it simply doesn’t matter. Something or someone completely different will come along in a page or two.
As to the actual poems themselves, I feel Hollis ought to congratulate herself. Using “love” as a vague theme could have been an unmitigated, fluffy, pink, marshmallowy disaster. Luckily this fate is avoided thanks to a thematically and tonally diverse selection of poems, that takes the sarcasm, sincerity, humour, heartbreak, beauty and seedier aspects of love as we know it in its stride. Sugary, sticky doom is also averted by a determination to not focus exclusively on the happy, rosy stages of love, but to also look at lust, infidelity, falling out of love, sex, lying, marriage and curing/not wanting to be in love – as well as ideas about the peculiar and intense nature of love.
“Adore” is a rather precious word for the emotions I have towards this book. Equally, “respect” and “admire” are far too mummified terms. It is as though it is more than a mere compilation of words, wit and wisdom written by 500 years’ worth of women; towards it I feel emotions that are more akin to seeing to seeing an old friend again. A warmth and recognition, slightly tainted by a bittersweet something. I’m not giving this book a number rating, but you should be able to tell that I would gladly recommend it to anyone.
Over and out.