The poems arrived on Valentine’s Day, which I suppose should be seen as appropriate, but it got me started thinking about love poems.
A few days ago, my phone rang, and it was an old friend from out of state. We chatted for a few minutes, and then she said, “I suppose you know why I’m calling.” I said, “Isn’t this about the time of year you’re usually looking for judges for the poetry contests?” She laughed, said I was right on the money, and asked if I would judge for her organization again this year. “I’m looking for ‘good’ judges,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happened to some of my regulars. I think they may have died. I called your number at work and discovered you weren’t there any more. So I tried this number instead.”
Death is one of the hazards of poetry judging. By the time you get old enough to develop any real perspective on other people’s work, you’re always looking over your shoulder for the guy with the scythe. (I made him a black Labrador dog in one of my short stories, which was probably a disservice to this very people-friendly breed.)
“Would you judge the love poems?” she asked, and I cringed. “Well, I might have a very different idea than most folks of what constitutes a love poem,” I said. She told me that was fine, and I agreed to do it.
So this morning, the poems arrived, 71 of them, and I found what I had feared: a lot of overused images and paeans to “great love.” There were also a few lust poems and several anti-love poems (“You were a real jerk, but I’m a lot smarter now”). I read them all and set them aside. That’s one of the tricks to judging. Read everything without judging, then come back to it, several times.
Here’s the problem with what most people think of as a “love poem.” If you’ve read Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the sonnets of Shakespeare, you know that it’s already been done better than you can ever hope to do it. Besides, we know longer speak in the language or even the concepts of a couple of centuries ago, and to try to cram our current relationships into shapely ankles, swollen lips like cherries, eyes of unfathomed depth, and the like just sounds phony.
For me, a love poem should say something very personal about the one you love without pounding people on the head with it.
Yesterday I went to town for my Tuesday workshops and an evening reading at the Newport library. Because of the reading, I was coming back fairly late, in the dark and the fog. I called Ben when I was leaving town with the understanding that if I wasn’t there in something just over an hour, he’d come looking for me.
It was a miserable trip, poor vision, eye strain, all of that stuff. But when I got to the the bridge, Ben was waiting for me with the gate open so I could sail on through. That’s above and beyond.
Here’s my idea of a love poem. I should tell you Ben really likes this poem. He’s kind enough to say that he likes all of my work, but I think this one has a special place.
Two Old Geese
They scrabble around the gravel drive
for the stray grain of corn, the heart-
shaped seed from a ripe sunflower.
They do this all day, sometimes
closer together than others.
If he intrudes and the sun is hot,
she might peck at him, or he at her.
Then he offers her a slug.
She takes it in her beak,
juicy bit of contrition.
But when the Shurtles’ setter bounds
into the yard and wants to play,
the gander makes himself
three times as large, his wings a shield,
his hiss and honk a warning.
The gander dances with the dog, always
between the goose and danger. He struts
when the dog retreats, and when
she has admired his bravery,
they return to foraging.
They spend their days this way.
At twilight they retreat to the safety
of the shed. Settling her feathers
around her feet, she sits and sinks
into a cloudy mound. A last look back
to where he stands, still watchful
in the dimming light, she tucks her head
beneath one wing, becomes a pillow
of goose dreams and eider.
Satisfied, the gander settles
lays his neck across her back.