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Roses and poems

February 14, 2010

Today marks the high point of the florists’, stationers’ and confectioners’ year, when millions of people around the world decide a box of chocolates, some dead angiosperms, an elaborate card and a plush toy are sufficient to express the complexities of human emotion.

(Yes, I am incredibly cynical about St Valentine’s Day, a cynicism born of 11 years of watching my wife’s birthday get spoiled by fatuous assumptions and pitying looks from waiters – no, I’m not too cheap to take my wife out on Valentine’s Day, I’m trying to have a lovely birthday meal with her the day before Valentine’s, so take your Cupid Menu and shove it thank you very much…)

Valentine’s Day is also one of the few days of the year when the masses get exposed to poetry on any scale. Poetry is much maligned as either “too hard” or “just rhymes”. I recall it as being universally loathed in high school when we were required to read any examples, yet it is no harder to read than literature (and frankly has the advantage of brevity).

The quality of poetry varies on “V-Day”. Sales of books with titles like “The Greatest Love Poems” peak. At least the poems contained within are recognised classics that have stood the test of time; well-written, by established masters, with good track records.

Then there is the Hallmark card – trite, following an A-B-A-B rhyming scheme and relying on the usual rhyming tropes. TV dinner poetry. It does the job, but with a lingering whiff of artificiality.

Lastly, there are the original poems, crafted by ardent lovers to the objects of their affection. Whilst poetry in books can be relied on to be good, and Valentine’s cards can be relied on to be, if not good, at least not bad, the original works of millions of first time poets veers from the undiscovered gem to the best forgotten about.

And it goes back to the fact poetry is not particularly well-received in the places that expose us to literature. At high school, poetry seems to be the “extra” topic that can be rushed through, or dropped altogether in favour of novels and plays; “real” literature, ignoring the fact that in terms of classical literature, poetry came first (think of epics like The Iliad, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh etc.)

So many assume that a few dashed-off lines will suffice, so long as they rhyme and don’t stray too far from the “Roses are red/Violets are blue” format.

This is not to say that this should be discouraged. From jotting down these simple little ditties, a few hardy souls may venture further into the world of meters and feet, of sonnets and ballads.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that if moved to poetry, everyone should try, but not just on one day a year. A poem is for eternity, not just for Valentine’s Day.

Poems, like roses, should be read.

Paul is in the middle of a poetical quandary. He has promised his wife a sonnet, but is having issues with getting the theme to work within the ABBA ABBA CDCCDC rhyming form of an Italianate sonnet. Either the theme or the rhyme has to change. Or he needs to get better at thinking of rhyming synonyms…
  1. February 14, 2010 6:41 am

    I love this article, Paul. Beautifully written, and with your inescapable humour.

    May I disagree on one point: You say that poetry has the advantage over prose, in its brevity. This can be true, but there is no worse feeling than, having started on a poem in the Hallmark tradition, one has the sinking feeling that brevity may not be the soul of wit; neither of moving verse, as one scans to the bottom of the page and realises that there are loads more rhyming couplets… LOADS!

    One of the governing reasons, I, personally, have for writing poetry, is my basic laziness. Prose is all very well, but I can whack out a poem in an evening. No, I am not being arrogant… just facetious.

    Having taught, I consider myself having been blessed to have only taught primary school children. Two verses seemed to be quite enough for them. The thought of having to read tortured, prepubescent verse, whether blank verse, or rhyming, would horrify me. After all, there are a limited amount of words that rhyme with blood, death and intolerance.

    Bring on the Haiku, I say

    May I suggest, that in honouring the promise you made your wife, the sonnet form you choose is the Italian Sonnet form, which is Petrarchan; so obviously will be in iambic pentameter, but the most comfortable and (in my opinion) elegant form: abbacddceffegg.

  2. February 15, 2010 12:05 am

    I love your opening sentence, i.e. the idea of all the Valentine’s Day things being “sufficient to express the complexities of human emotion”. And my wife agrees. We don’t go in for Valentine’s Day at all, despite the fact that my wife loves flowers (and does sometimes get them). This year, however, was an exception. My daughter just couldn’t understand my not doing anything for Valentine’s day, so to placate her I decided to buy my wife a rose AND one for her. She was both surprised and pleased but as I’m a bit slow it took me a while to understand the florist’s remark when I bought them… “I won’t say anything to the wife!”

  3. February 16, 2010 2:15 am

    There’s a story in that Paul S!!

    Seeing all those letters immediately made me think of writing poery based on ADCD… which of course would not be love poetry at all. Though as a teenager there seemed to be plenty of love expressed in a variety of ways on the back of the toilet doors for Bon Scott at school.

    And apologies for such a crass remark- given the beauty and candor of your column. It is my warped brain getting in the way again.

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