A Thing of Beauty No. 2: Love Speaks Its Name

Back in the sunny depths of July I began a series on this blog in which I would take a look at beautiful books, those not just with stimulating content but whose exterior appearance commands attention too. To continue that project I present Love Speaks Its Name, an anthology of ‘gay and lesbian love poetry’ produced as part of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets collection.

Something I love even more than a beautifully designed book is one which has a story attached to it. Whether it’s a signed copy, an inscription that been written in the front (to you or a previous owner, which can be one of the perks of buying secondhand books) or a book that you received on a special occasion, a story to attach to your story just adds another level of meaning to it. But the story behind Love Speaks Its Name is all about where I bought it. On one of my mildly spontaneous solo trips up to London I organised a mini literary tour of the city for myself, visiting the British Library, Bloomsbury and various bookshops, including Gay’s the Word where I bought this. If the shop sounds familiar to you it might be because its famous as the only LGBTQ+ bookshop in the UK, or it could be because it’s the bookshop featured in the film Pride. Either way, it’s a delightful place, crammed full with queer texts both familiar and entirely unheard of, amongst which I found this wonderful collection of poetry.

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The collection contains poems both by overtly queer authors and those who have been reclaimed from history as LGBTQ+ writers, such as Shakespeare and Wilfred Owen. This mixture means there are poems which make patent allusions to same sex desires, and those which address desire more abstractly but are written by poets we would now consider queer. With anthologies such as this it always interesting to see how the editor chooses to arrange the texts within it; in this case they are sorted into categories for the different stages of love, including ‘longing’, ‘looking’ and ‘anxiety’. The choice allows poems from very different periods to appear right beside each other, heightening the sense that the desires evoked transcend the rigours of history.

But returning to the outside of the book, this collection is perfectly designed for leisured browsing. The compact size is great for picking up and diving in whenever it takes your fancy, and the length of the poems and extracts encourages this too. But despite being small there is a sturdiness to this volume too, a physicality which makes you want to pull it off the shelf for a ponder. I appreciate the muted colour scheme, making use of purple, bronze, black and white in a way that allows the book to appear timeless; in fact, it rather hides just how radical much of the content within was, and in many cases, still is. The design affords these poems the status of classics, giving them a place in the literary canon which not all have been afforded. The departure from the all too obvious rainbow colour scheme is very welcome here.

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There are some issues with the collection of course. The label ‘gay and lesbian love poetry’ strikes me as a bit reductive for the 21st century, forcing the writers within its pages into categories they may not have placed themselves in. As someone with an avid interest in early modern sexuality in literature, I do bristle slightly at the implication we could put as solid a label as ‘gay’ on Shakespeare or Marlowe. But besides these issues the collection is sublime, and the beauty of it as a physical object stands up to the beauty of the verse hidden inside.

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