Will you be my Valentine?

Love, like poetry, is a slippery creature and both love and poetry remain an enigma to me most of the time. In preparing this blog, I’ve researched love poems, thought about the structure of love stories and watched a couple of films and I’m at a loss. I recognise that Valentine’s Day is just a commercial enterprise and the aim is to make people feel they are lacking something which can be remedied by buying a certain product, or buying into a certain worldview. It still sucks to be single on Valentine’s Day, though. I miss having someone to sneer at it without appearing bitter. I miss being able to talk about romance at all without appearing bitter, tragic or, if I choose to think more positively, hopelessly naïve.

Love poems can be incredibly moving and address many aspects of romance, from consuming passion to unrequited love and the end of an affair. I haven’t written many love poems in my career because I’ve never found a way to break out of those categories. I have written some reflections on past relationships, but they’re rarely about love and more about self-discovery. I did write a poem for the wedding of two of my best friends and that was a tough commission because I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. I found the certainty of their marriage, the “rightness” of them being together very hard to express without resorting to cliché. The language around love is something that fascinates me because, I think, what it demonstrates in most cases is the inadequacy of language. So much remains unsaid and perhaps that’s why poets, novelists and musicians continue to try.

As a single woman in my forties, I may find much unsaid about my experience but that doesn’t mean it isn’t written between the lines – screaming at me between the verse and the chorus – and those are messages no one wants to write down. Love poems talk in elevated language about how superficial aspects such as age or looks don’t matter (and my friends do the same) but the truth is that in the real world, they do. In the rousing poem Wild Geese, Mary Oliver counsels that, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” That may be excellent advice for life, but if that soft animal contains too many contradictions, if it loves delicate poetry and the most bombastic action movies, gourmet cocktails and a pint of Guinness, or loves being an Aunt but would rather have a puppy than a child, it makes for a truly terrible dating profile. Trust me.

Just as there is a gap between the words found in love poems and our experience of love, there is a dissonance between how we would like life to be and how it really is. While no one finds the words to express that, Valentine’s Day can stake a claim in the gap, pulling us towards the dream and away from the reality. On bad days, I think there must be something wrong with me to have failed so utterly in the world of romance. I remind myself of the many loves in my life, comprised of my family and the most incredible friends, just to be reassured that I’m not irrevocably broken. I always write to find out what I think, so maybe I need to start with that experience and write love poetry which reflects my reality. Wild Geese may be relevant after all, concluding as it does:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Next time I feel like a romantic failure, I’m also going to remind myself of something I discovered while researching this blog – Amazon lists the recent film version of Macbeth under the category of Romance. I may suck at dating and remain mystified by romance but at least I know that Lord and Lady Macbeth aren’t the romantic model to strive towards.