What Is This Thing Called Love?
February 11, 2010
Before she was Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Katie Conboy was Professor of English at Stonehill. In celebration of Valentine's Day, we asked her to reflect on four of her favorite love poems.
Well, it's Valentine's Day, and we know a Hallmark rhyme will never do. But I have an impossible task: to select four from a multitude of poems expressing love. How to choose? In the words of Cole Porter: What is this thing called love?
Space limitations force me to pass over Shakespeare's sonnets and Donne's valedictions, over Marvell's coy mistress and John Clare's Elia, over Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and what has been called the "Romantic" period. I'll even bypass Mathew Arnold, whose closing lines of "Dover Beach" are among my favorites in all of poetry, and Emily Dickinson, whose short lyrics explode with passions that she contained on small pieces of paper, and the haunting beauty of Walt Whitman's "To a Stranger."
It may sound unromantic, but my own favorite love poems are complicated - never just about love, but about love in the face of something: perhaps time or cosmic indifference, absence or death. They reveal the role of chance, of desire, of discipline. They communicate the difficulty of expressing their own subject matter. They suggest that love requires something of us: work, patience, imagination, fidelity.
I can't claim that my four contemporary selections - somewhat arbitrary given the horn of lyric plenty - will provide you with words to murmur to your Valentine, but I hope they will give you something to think about as you consider the topic of love.
• Wisława Szymborska, "Love at First Sight." The Polish Nobel laureate meditates on the supposedly romantic idea of "love at first sight," and leaves the reader wondering if there is, perhaps, more mystery in the lovers having revolved in the same sphere, passing "each other a million times," even dreaming "the same dream."
• Michael Donaghy, "Machines." The speaker compares his efforts to express love - which involve "agility, desire, and feverish care" - with the balancing act of a bicyclist and the skill of a harpsichordist. It's a stunningly crafted poem by a poet who had a most untimely death.
• Seamus Heaney, "Scaffolding." The Irish Nobel-winner reflects on the work that goes into relationships; just as masons set up scaffolding to build a wall, so, too, a solid relationship may need structures that can later fall away.
• Billy Collins, "Serenade." This humorous poem turns a cliché on its head. Leaving nothing to chance, the speaker resolves: "Let the other boys from the village /gather under your window / and strum their bean-shaped guitars." He will be an original, will find a surprising expression of love, even if it has to be played on "a nameless instrument / it took so many days and nights to invent."
To find your own favorite love poems, visit www.poetryfoundation.org.
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