You can tell Valentine’s Day is over because you can watch TV again without feeling guilty, depressed or outraged. The woman frightened of thunderstorms until her beloved presents her with a Love’s Embrace necklace is gone — at least until Christmas. So is the Vermont Teddy Bear delivery man who should not, under any circumstances, be given your street address.
We don’t recognize the version of love these commercials offer, with their platitudes and perfection. We worry that we should, but love is more difficult than a 30-second TV spot. Love, as Leonard Cohen said, is not a victory march. It does not conquer all, it is not all you need and it does not go to Jared.
This is where poetry comes in. Maybe I’m just as Pollyanna-ish about poetry as the “Every Kiss Begins with Kay” folks are about love, but I do believe poetry — when it’s working at its best — is an act of love for the world, no matter how dismal its vision. In this way, all poetry is love poetry.
But we’re talking about Valentine’s Day love — two people clinking wine glasses or walking hand in hand or maybe even having sex. Poetry tells us about that kind of love too, but it should free us from the illusion of love-as-advertised. It should help us understand the phenomenon as we know it — the most chaotic, unnerving, addictive experience in our lives. Poetry should get it.
“They Flee From Me,” by the Renaissance poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt, is the sort of poem I mean. It’s a poem about the way love and loss get tangled and, incidentally, it features the best sex scene I know of in English poetry.
Wyatt imagines the woman who no longer loves him as a wild animal shying from his open hand: “I have seen them gentle, tame and meek / That now are wild and do not remember / That sometime they put themself in danger / To take bread at my hand.” And, like any heartbroken lover, Wyatt tortures himself with memories of they way they were, “once in special.”
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
That internal rhyme of “she me” is almost unbearable, as Wyatt wrenches the syntax to bring together two pronouns, even though the people they refer to are now irrevocably apart. In his vision, she is the wandering animal, yet it’s she who catches him in her arms “long and small.” “It was no dream,” he admits: “I lay broad waking.” It pains him to remember, but less than it pains him not to remember — as this memory, however cruel, is now all he has of her.
As much as poets are occupied by the disappointments of love lost, they also address the disappointments of love realized, which can be worse. In one of my favorite passages about erotic love, Adrienne Rich writes: “How many men have touched me with their eyes / more hotly than they later touched me with their lips.” The contradictions of desire and fulfillment and disappointment that we spend our lives trying to understand, Rich distills into two devastating lines. Take a look at Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” for some of the best contemporary love poetry you’ll find.
Or take the ending of Philip Larkin’s “Talking in Bed,” an act that “ought to be easiest.” But time passes and hearts change, and even
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
The gap between true and not untrue, kind and not unkind, is barely wide enough for light to escape. But that’s the space where poetry does its best work. In Rich’s and Larkin’s poems, time ravages fulfilled relationships as those relationships break down. The heartbreaking end of Rita Dove’s “Old Folk’s Home, Jerusalem” portrays time’s cruelties to even the strongest relationships. After a catalogue of old age’s deprivations (“what doesn’t end sloshes over”), Dove concludes: “Everyone waiting here was once in love.”
“Death is the mother of beauty,” Wallace Stevens tells us. In this case he means that the beauty of a love poem, of love itself, is tied up in its potential to be lost. Poetry is a politicking with loss, which in love poetry means depicting the supreme overthrow of our rational selves that occurs when we fall in love.
And ultimately, love poetry presents love as our one consoling defense against the inevitability of death. Take Eavan Boland’s “Quarantine,” a poem set amid the Irish potato famine, “in the worst hour of the worst season / of the worst year of a whole people.” A man and woman die of hunger and cold, and are discovered later with “her feet … held against his breastbone. / The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.”
This is not material for TV commercials or, for that matter, for much love poetry, with its “praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.” Boland offers only “this merciless inventory,” of “what they suffered. How they lived. / And what there is between a man and a woman. / And in what darkness it can best be proved.”
The joy and fear of that last line is something I’ve found nowhere else but in poetry and in love.