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Poetry and V-Day!

With hearts everywhere - chocolates to jewellery - love and poetry seem to go hand in hand, says Bhaskar Dasgupta.

india Updated: Feb 17, 2006 19:45 IST

So Valentine's Day is on us again. Once more, we are surrounded with heart shaped chocolate boxes; attacked by e-mails of utterly soppy love poems, confronted with flower shops with mind-numbingly impractical heart shaped bouquets on display to tickle your fancy; jewellery shops going berserk with heart shaped pendants and joined up rings; armies of teddy-bears with red bows and hearts.

Well, it has become a tradition in this column to take a break from discussing serious old issues of terrorism, politics, religion, history and kick back to explore an aspect of this amazing, revolting, infuriating, exasperating, expensive, mind-boggling, soppy, adorable, fascinating emotion called love. In particular, I want to explore love poetry, and to be precise, this strange habit of comparisons which infests love poetry like boils on a grasshopper's wings.

I am obviously not very happy about all this. Poetry and myself don't go together. Well, not all of the poems. In other words, you wouldn't find me curled up on a rainy day with a nice book on poetry, I don't understand it and it certainly does not "talk" to me. But then, looking around the world, there is a place, need and demand for poetry. You see poem in magazines, you see them in books, in Valentine cards, in letters and you even see them emblazoned on the sides of London underground trains. Obviously, there is much to be said about poetry, just that I wouldn't be the one to say it.

This obviously means that this tradition of writing an essay on Valentine's Day makes my hair hurt.

But superlatives to the left, adjectives to the right, into the valley of poetry, we charge. I wanted to specifically look at comparisons which poets make, when they are talking about their love. I suppose, grunting - my mate - banging the loved one over the head and dragging her into the cave would have sufficed, but life and human evolution has unfortunately put on a veneer of civilisation over these simple mechanisms and one has to go into paeans of praise and compliments to cajole the lover into the cave!

Comparisons seem to be a good way of showing how imaginatively and creatively one loves the other. I did not want to look at modern poems, so had a bit of a stroll through history.

Precious metals and jewels seem to have been used in various countries during various ages. Look at this offering by Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-73):

You've no idea how hard I've looked for a gift to bring you.
Nothing seemed right.
What's the point of bringing gold to the gold mine,
or water to the Ocean.
Everything I came up with was like taking spices to the Orient.
It's no good giving my heart and my soul because you already have these.
So- I've brought you a mirror.

Look at yourself and remember me.

Even older was this one from ancient Egypt, (Papyrus Chester Beatty I), where the poet compares his beloved's physical attributes:

Hair true lapis lazuli;
Arms surpassing gold,

Or this one from Narrinai, (Tamil love poems - Southern India - 400-300

Like gold, indeed, O maiden, is your shining body,
and like sapphire, your fragrant dark hair;

The mathematician inside me immediately started thinking about arms made of gold and figured. Man, that would be very heavy indeed and I well hope she doesn't whack me with that arm. That will really leave a rather large dent in me. Or, combing that stony hair will be a bit of a chore if one even found a suitable comb, or I wonder what kind of shampoo one would use for lapis lazuli hair? But I suppose that was more as an expression of the rarity and value of the material or its attractiveness that the poet was referring to, rather than the intrinsic physical characteristics. But then, as I said I am not very poetic and rather a practical person.

The next oft-used comparison seems to be to animals. See this from Narrinai (Tamil love poems - southern India - 400-300 BCE)

Like that of a peacock is her beauty.
Like that of a red-striped parrot is her speech.

Or this from the Hebrew Book of Songs:

How beautiful you are, my dearest, how beautiful!
Your eyes behind your veil are like doves,
Your hair like a flock of goats streaming down Mount Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of ewes just shorn which have come up fresh from the dipping;
Each ewe has twins and none has cast a lamb....

Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twin fawns of a gazelle...

Here's another one from Pablo Neruda.

Lovely one,
With delicate hands and slender feet
Like a silver pony,
Walking, flower of the world,
Thus I see you,
Lovely one.

Then we have one by Miguel Hernandez.

I recall and do not recall that history
Of ivory dying away into hair,
Where the swan's neck learnt how to frown
And proclaim ephemeral snow.

I can sort of see the point of comparing your beloved to animals. I mean, okay, so a gazelle is elegant, a swan is also graceful, I guess a peacock will also do at a stretch (for women that is), but some comparisons are downright scary. Goats? Sheep? Parrots? I mean would you really use these examples?

Or is it just myself having a mathematical logical brain or heart? Mind you, the French call their beloved as a cabbage. That seriously worries me, but then, I suppose it means something else in their language which is missed by being filtered by the English Channel (if you excuse the joke). If I tried to compare my beloved with a goat, sheep, parrot or a cabbage, I will get walloped at worst or asked "are you out of your mind?" or called as a Homer at best.

My favourite animal and pet is a dog, but even the dunderhead that I am, knows that the last thing you would like to do is to compare your beloved to a member of the canine species, not even if you will be admiring her being faithful to you with all your foot in the mouth incidents.

First Published: Feb 17, 2006 19:45 IST