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8 February 2023

A queer kind of poetry

This bittersweet, beautiful programme highlights odes to relationships between two men or two women.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Someone somewhere is probably going to have a hissy fit about Radio 4 broadcasting a programme in the run-up to Valentine’s Day on queer love poetry. Given the frenzy for culture wars, the BBC will undoubtedly be accused of “wokeness” for highlighting how some of history’s most prestigious poets – Shakespeare, Tennyson, AE Housman, Aphra Behn – wrote about the love, so often forbidden, between two men or two women. 

So be it – because this is 28 minutes of pure, bittersweet beauty. The host, Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, weaves together the readings with reflections on her relationship with poetry and her own sexuality, while she and her wife enjoy Valentine’s afternoon tea. The result is a masterclass of quiet radicalism: some of the most famous lines of poetry ever written are featured (“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”; “I am the love that dare not speak its name”), alongside others that are less familiar but just as striking. I wish I’d been introduced to “For Willyce”, by the black American lesbian Pat Parker, when I was a confused and insecure teenager, or to Carol Ann Duffy’s “River” as I was navigating my first heartbreak.

Cupid Loves Eros may appear a meditation on yesterday’s battles. Same-sex marriage has been legal in England, Wales and Scotland for almost a decade, and the days when LGBT+ people here faced “jail and gallows and hell-fire”, as Housman furiously puts it in “The Laws of God, the Laws of Man”, are thankfully long gone. But in a great many countries, the national broadcaster celebrating queer love so unapologetically would be unthinkable, as would McDermid having a romantic meal in public with her wife. “It was the poets that made me think, I have a tribe,” she wistfully concludes – a nod to the power their words still hold, even if progress has been made. So bring on the culture war, and brush up on your Sappho.

Cupid Loves Eros
BBC Radio 4, 13 February, 4pm

[See also: The best poetry books of 2022]

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak