Washington, DC, February 11, 2012 — Valentine’s Day will soon arrive with a bounty of hearts pierced by Cupid’s arrow: Ah, love.
The piercing is a metaphor, a trite one for sure. But trite doesn’t mean false. It means we know what the comparison means even as we encounter it. On Valentine’s Day, we’re not necessarily delighted by originality. We love the tried and true.
That’s why the arrow-in-the-heart on a card or candy box may melt your own heart: Ah, to die for love!
Last year, as this day of love approached, a 28-year-old trainer at the gym—a sweet, gorgeous Brazilian—asked me, an avid poetry reader, to send him some ideas for words he might use in a handwritten card he wanted to send to the lucky gal he was wooing.
He’s not accustomed to reading lots of poetry, so he wasn’t acquainted with the poets whose work I sent.
But he read the two excerpts I forwarded and the advice I provided with the ingenuousness of a newbie.
Here’s what happened.
Actually, before we get to that, questions for you, dear reader: Which excerpt did he choose? And what can we learn from his choice?
- W.H. Auden:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
Advice: Change the “he” to “she”. Adjust the last line, with apologies to Auden, this way: “I think that love will last forever: How could I be wrong?” Or leave out the last line.
The Auden is from his poem “Funeral Blues.” It was featured in the romantic-comedy film Four Weddings and a Funeral, one of my favorites. If you’re familiar with this movie, you may recall that Matthew, played in a restrained and moving performance by the Scottish actor John Hannah, recites the full poem at the funeral for Gareth, played with exuberance by Simon Callow.
- D.H. Lawrence
But firm at the centre
My heart was found
My own to her perfect
Like a magnet’s keeper
Closing the round.
Advice: Write, “I remember when I knew.” Change the “But” in the first line to “And.”
The Lawrence excerpt is the closing stanza of his terrific love poem “Kisses in the Train.” Although this one probably precedes his relationship with Frieda Lawrence, whom he seduced and married, I can still imagine her reading it.
Still in suspense? My Brazilian chose Auden.
His girlfriend swooned. Wouldn’t you?
What do we learn?
Love and death are inexorably bound because we seek love within the limits of existence. It’s not so odd then that Cupid’s hearts, pierced with arrows, proliferate on Valentine’s Day.
Get this: Last year on January 8, 2011, I discovered, hidden in The New York Times’ obituaries, a love poem by Philip Larkin.
The poem was written to Larkin’s long-time secretary and secret lover Betty Makereth. Their affair occurred when both were in their 50s. Discovered after he died, the poem was published after Mackereth confirmed its authenticity.
The writer of the obit speaks of her beloved “other” mother (no relation to Larkin) who said to the “daughter” that the poem “described the life that she felt so lucky to have.” Here’s the poem as it appeared in the Times:
We met at the end of the party / When most of the drinks were dead / And all the glasses dirty: / “Have this that’s left,” you said. / We walked through the last of summer, / When shadows reached long and blue / Across days that were growing shorter: / You said: “There’s autumn too.” / Always for you what’s finished / Is nothing, and what survives / Cancels the failed, the famished, / As if we had fresh lives / From that night on, and just living / Could make me unaware / Of June, and the guests arriving, / And I not there.
The poem was in an obituary because that’s where we often end up expressing our love, sometimes too late.
So I am no cynic about Valentine’s Day. I am one of its cheerleaders. On this Valentine’s Day, perhaps you will join me and consider turning to a poet—instead of Hallmark—for inspiring words to express your love.
Or even better, write a love poem yourself. After all, though time limits, love survives.
Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a memoir and The Woman Who Never Cooked. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster.” Find out more at http://maryltabor.com
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