Being a man of a certain age I am not ashamed to say that I have loved a great many women in my life; a few of them even loved me back. And every single time it has been different. 'I love you' is such an easy thing to say, but a hard thing to communicate. Saying it is never enough. It feels as if it should be because it is often hard to reach the point where you have the nerve to mumble those three little words. And, at first, we manage to cram everything we feel into those words, we love hearing them and we love saying them. We make the words our own. It doesn't matter that other people have been whispering them to each other for yonks; no one else grasps their significance like we do.
Eventually, though, we start to rummage around for other ways to express that love, trinkets, cards, flowers, chocolate, more chocolate. Somewhere along the line, sometimes even while we're plucking up the courage to proclaim those three immortal words for the first time, we plonk ourselves down and try to write what is often our first poem, our first love poem and our first bad poem all bound up in a pink bow along with a smattering of iambs and a few bad rhymes for good measure.
Actually very little of my poetry rhymes – it is so much harder to work with than newbies imagine – but a lot of it has been dire. Even less of it could pass as love poetry though. I have never been able to work out why it is so hard to work with that particular emotion – negative emotions are so much easier.
As Valentine's Day is practically upon us (hence the post's title) I thought I'd have a look at the different approaches I've taken over the years to the difficult task of converting, "I love you" into poetry.
We'll start off back in 1977 and that's a memorable year because it was then I first discovered William Carlos Williams. I know that's the case because I immediately sat down and wrote two very different poems, different for me, on two very different subjects, war and love. Here is the love poem:
a hand out of blindness
a place to be
memories will come
a need for silence
(but not forced)
8 May 1977
The title is after the Lennon & McCartney song which happened to be playing in a Chinese restaurant where we'd had a meal a few days beforehand. I thought by naming the poem after it I could turn it into an 'our song' but the thing I've learned about 'our songs' is that they pick you. I've always had a fondness for this poem and I think, for my age, it was a decent stab at the problem.
What I had in mind when I wrote this was to copy the style of the Imagists but what I ended up dealing with are abstracts.
When the marriage broke up I wrote this:
One day he tried too hard and broke it.
He patched it up
and it still worked,
though not as well.
The wheels still went round.
No one noticed any change
till one day it fell to pieces
and they all wondered why.
23 September 1982
The next poem, only a year later I'm surprised to find, is for new lady:
Two one-legged men
limping down the road
sharing a single crutch
and each, in turn,
being a crutch to the other.
Both must go on
for neither has the strength to alone
and neither knows how
to leave the other.
16 September 1983
The idea behind this poem is far better than its execution. Twenty years later I took the poem and turned it into a story which I incorporated into my last novel. This is also the only time the dedication is actually the title of the poem. About ten years later we split up. She got custody of the crutch. Already you can see that I'm thinking about myself as a broken individual but hold that thought till you read the final poem.
There was no poem when we split up. In fact I'd not written anything for years.
Now we have a new lady who gets two poems but there's a reason. The first is at the start of our relationship and the second comes at its end. I have mixed feelings about 'The Power of Love' but I doubt there are many mathematical love poems out there. It's a clever poem and I think that's its downfall especially since I had to explain it to the lady in question.
What I had in mind was a progression from principled love (agape) through brotherly affection (filia) onto passion (eros) but I didn’t know how to incorporate the transition into a poem. It was the word 'deep' that brought it all together in my head – depth requires three dimensions – and from there everything fell into place.
THE POWER OF LOVE
Love is a straight line –
it gets right to the heart of things.
Love squared is expansive –
it covers a multitude of sins.
Love to the power of three is deep –
it takes time to explore.
Give me your hand
and don't be afraid.
12 June 1994
YOU AND I, A POEM ABOUT IDENTITY
You are not me and yet you are –
you're that other part of me
that brings me to peace with myself.
Loneliness is incompletion
but you make me whole and still more:
you've let me see what I could be.
And I love you for that.
17 August 1996
The reason I've included this second poem is because of what happened to it. It got its name changed. It became 'The Barry Poem' but not because mine is a crappy title, which it is. The reason is that I showed it to one of the girls I was working with at the time and she asked for a copy because she said I had put into words precisely how she felt about his guy called Barry. I've quite gone off the piece actually. I wrote it on the back of a paper bag in the middle of Byres Road in Glasgow; I'd forgotten my notebook. That said I can’t deny how powerfully it affected my workmate at the time. She's married now but not to Barry.
Another year on – I guess I don't hang around – and I stumbled across my next, and hopefully last, love. This is a poem I wrote very early into our relationship that she adopted. I have to be honest, and I'll get shouted at for this, I really can't remember too much about the writing of it. What I can say about it, which explains the second stanza a little, is that we really weren't sure where the relationship was heading. We were still pretending to be friends but it was becoming clearer and clearer that neither of us was steering and we literally fell into love.
THERE BE DRAGONS
I simply cared for you
and that caring grew into love.
Now I don't know what kind of love
I can't stop feeling.
I can't see it's boundaries.
I don't know how far I can go.
It seems though that we won't turn back
until it's too late.
7 March, 1997
Again we have the image of love as a two-dimensional surface, a map this time, and 'in love' as being something with depth, what you would fall into if you sailed over the edge.
Now we've been married for over ten years and the love poems dried up. I still express my affection in practical ways – wine, flowers, bits of jewellery, chocolate, more chocolate, she never has to worry she might miss her favourite authors' next books – but she'd been pining after another poem for a while and wouldn’t say. The frustrating thing was I couldn’t seem to string two words together until last December. This was the poem she found in her card on our anniversary:
I don't know
how clocks work
or time works
or hearts work.
I know that
but I know
that we work
though not how.
Some things don't
need a how
or a why.
Monday, 17 December 2007
The idea was hers. She had been going on about broken clocks and that was all I needed.
So there you have it. I'm not sure what it says about me other than I can string a few words together. I've just had a look at few sites on-line where an unsuspecting public can go to find some of the most awful poetry I've read in years. It really is no wonder that a lot of people have very little time for poetry if they think this is what poetry is supposed to be like. It's like comparing pantomime to theatre.
I would never do anything as horrible as challenge any of the men out there to write a poem for your loved one but, if you do, you might want to try something different to:
I love you lips, your eyes so blue
Your sexy little figure
A rear that makes me salivate
A shame your boobs weren't bigger.
Ladies, you're on your own.