"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
Happy Valentine’s Day. Or as we know it in our family, Simon’s birthday. Or as you may call it, the Festival of Unusually Expensive Flowers. The ones above can be purchased from any good chemist.
I’m all for it myself. The nay-sayers who moan about a festival of love are like those who moan about Christmas: “I’m single/ non-Christian/ premenstrual so can you all stop being so bloody happy and LOOK AT MY UNHAPPY FACE for a moment?”
No. Belt up. Love is not so thick on the ground that we can pass up a chance to celebrate it. If you aren’t getting any love/ sex/ flirting action, then read this but let’s not mock those who are: they have enough to contend with as it is. Love raises big questions (including, in this article, “Does a session of blissful fucking in a tent make the nearby trees and squirrels happy?”).
Valentine’s is a reminder that we never stop tackling the oldest themes. After all, they are the only ones worth tackling. A gentleman in a workshop once said to me “I’ve decided not to write about death because….. well, it’s been done hasn’t it?” Good luck sir, in finding a subject as yet untouched by 5000 years of literature. Death, sex and the self are what we are stuck with. We just have to keep looking for new ways to say old things. There are some more great contemporary choices here. See? No need to be cheesy.
How to write about love? The same way you write about anything else : truthfully. In poetry, as in sex, the audience will know if you are faking it. Bare honesty – including the uncomfortable sort – disarms cliché. After all, no matter how often we hear them we never tire of the words I love you. Here are some of my favourite love poems:
Tony Hoagland’s extremely disconcerting Romantic Moment
Michael Donaghy’s endlessly re-cyclable, re-listenable Machines
Thom Gunn’s non-sexual but delicious Hug
Eileen Myles’ meandering, appetite-driven Peanut Butter
Here’s one of mine, a decimal sonnet taking its title from John Muir. And here’s me on video reading a filthy sonnet from Mr W S. Good luck to you, lovers, from a conscientious objector in the battle of the sexes. I’ll be having an early night with John Donne, who never fails to satisfy – and with Sappho. Her smallest surviving fragment reminds us that short, sharp and to the point is often enough.
I burn for you….