Valentine’s Day: roses, champagne, lace knickers and bad poetry. It’s tempting to ignore the whole rotten lot of it, with its grand, clichéd gestures and craven lack of common sense. After all, if love could be righted just once on an annual basis through an expensive gift, Relate wouldn’t have such a long waiting list.
It’s the empty verbosity of Valentine’s Day that irritates me the most, the requisitioning of undoubtedly great poets to say something shallow and trite – and, worse, the proliferation of doggerel in a million spangly cards.
The problem is, we’re only seeing one aspect of love portrayed here: the blind, besotted kind that we feel at the beginning of a relationship. Those of us who are together in the long-term can’t help but feel that it’s some kind of festival for those who know nothing about love, in all its deeper and darker permutations. Let the children play, we tend to think, but just don’t bother us with your nonsense.
But what if we want to make the best of things this year? What if we want to take the opportunity to say something sincere and pertinent, that reflects the bitter intensities of long-term love, without becoming nauseating? Here are three suggestions.
The first thing we might want to say to our lover is about time, and the sense of awe it inspires when we tot up the years we’ve spent together, the percentage of our lives that represents, and the traffic that has passed through our relationship in that period.
Czesław Miłosz’s 1936 poem ‘Encounter’ is a perfect distillation of the effects of time, the bewilderment and ‘wonder’ it inspires. In it, we find a sharp, simple image of life, a shadow of death, and sense that the passing years are a marvel rather than a horror.
Except that it is addressed to ‘my love’, it is nothing like a traditional love poem, but I think that it offers something more profound than that: the knitting together of love with life.
Let us turn, now, to a little naughtiness. ‘The Sun Rising’, John Donne’s heartfelt plea to the sun to give him just a little more time in bed with his lover is, on the face of it, akin to the whole ‘young love’ Valentine’s industry that I was lamenting just a few short paragraphs ago.
But what this poem offers for we lifers is a glimpse back at the delicious compulsion of sex, before we became complacent about it (or before it became more of a political act than a pleasurable encounter, depending on how things are going for you).
The Sun Rising is a lascivious cry of rebellion against the universe, whose order dares to overthrow the temporary kingdom that Donne has built with the woman in his bed. ‘Saucy pedantic wretch,’ he scolds, ‘go chide/ Late school-boys and sour prentices.’ There is a wry smile on his lips even as he says it, knowing as he does that he is really asking for an upending of natural order.
It is impossible to talk sincerely about love without also acknowledging its bitter underbelly. Those of us who have travelled its course over many years may have cause to reflect on the moments that we have been hurt, and caused hurt; but also on the miracle of resilience in the light of these horrors.
Sarah Maguire’s ‘Spilt Milk’ is poem for those who have an intimate knowledge of atonement, both given and received. This may be an image of the end of a relationship (‘It has rained and rained since you left, the streets black/and muscled with water.’), but there is a strength in knowing that our own relationships have endured such desolate moments.
What’s more, this poem is a defiant assertion of the messiness of adult desire, a repentant je ne regrette rien. Share it with your imperfect lover on this most unrealistic of festivals.