We’ve all been there. Filled with good intentions a week before, our minds bubbling with exotic and innovative ideas to surprise and delight our significant other, we’re mentally prepared for V day. And then Alex calls for a drink and Ben needs a favour and Charlie has ticket to the football and before you know it its Feb 13th and you’re out of time.
Welcome fellow travellers to the wonderful world of the Valentine’s book – cheap, easy to acquire, personalised and sure to make you look thoughtful and romantic, as long as you choose the right one.
If you have a day in hand go for a physical book. You can get expedited delivery from online sellers, and in London at least you can track down a book shop on every other high street. Poems are the obvious choice because fiction spans so many story lines you might trigger an adverse reaction. (Unless you want to signal to someone not your partner that you would rather be with them[Jude], would rather they weren’t with the person they are with [Wuthering Heights], or want to kill your partner [Gone Girl].) Having said that my own book of stories has roses on the cover and would work a treat.
So which poetry book? There are so many to choose from and not all of them fit the Valentine’s bill. Gabriela Mistral’s MadWomen is probably only appropriate if you want to give a break up gift. Brilliant as it is, the message is all wrong. Similarly Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, the undercurrent of tragedy and regret will pull you into an emotional maelstrom.
Neruda is the natural choice. Romantic, sensual, accessible and familiar, but it is a bit uninspired. You won’t get any points for thinking outside the box, or applying some diligent research. The same goes for the old romantic standards. Shakespeare, Barrett Browning, and Pam Ayres, all worthy luminaries of the English speaking world, but so well known, and gracing so many greeting cards you’ll get nothing back for the effort.
That means you need to cast the net a little wider – if you want something with a slightly melancholy romantic turn you should pick up Cavafy’s Collected poems; there is a distinct homoerotic sensibility running through it, which adds a level of poignancy when set in context of the time he was writing.
If you are after something with more violent passions then Vicente Aleixandre’s Destruction or Love is the perfect choice (my Goodreads review of it is here). The hardback edition is a beautiful and weighty tome – you’ll be considerate, worldly, and a harbourer of dark and brooding passions all at once.
Rumi has suffered a little by becoming a campus favourite, and therefore a bit saccharine for more mature sensibilities, but if you can find a copy of The Book of Love, you should ease your way out of any strife.
An acquaintance recently wrote a translation of a Li Bai (aka Li Po) poem, which made me look the Tang dynasty poet up. How did I miss this? (bangs head on wall). Buy two, one for your significant other, and one for yourself in case you ever break up because you won’t want to be without it.
In a similar vein the love poems of Catullus to Lesbia are vaguely remembered by many, but under read by all. In the UK Walt Whitman is not part of the school reading list, and so won’t be familiar, but it is better suited to someone with a bit of grit in their soul.
If you have really run out of time (it is six pm on Feb 14th, and you need to do a real Houdini act) then there are two options. If you have been together long enough to be able to send or gift books to each other’s Kindles or tablets then you could still wriggle out jail. My friend Rik Roots has written the very credible Poems to Quote to Your Lover, and many of the writers above are available in ebook form.
Be wary though. Some of the older books are just scans of an early edition with crappy page breaks and no hyperlinks. I recently picked up a very cheap copy of Rumi for my tablet only to find the text and notes poorly laid out.
If you don’t have the option of sending something over the ether then get a really nice card and crib in a poem. Choose someone relatively unknown and if you are too cheap to buy a copy use the Amazon “Look Inside” feature to lift a poem, and scribe it into the card. The onus is now really on you to pick something personal. Alice Meynell’s Renouncement is intense and if your significant other is not a regular poetry reader you might get away with it. There are some lines buried in Shelley’s Epipsychidion which only avid fans will remember, so you could easily take a couplet or two (although have a care, from memory Charlotte Bronte quotes the “seraph of heaven” line in Vilette). Nicholl’s Sonnets to Aurelia are also hard to get hold of, and although many of them are scathing and cold (again good for a break up message), you can definitely pick up a couple of romantic lines e.g.:
In my ruins hour remembrance brings
Faith to my doubt to my intention grace
Reminding me how feebly fall such stings
On one whose eyes dared once your eyes to face
And read in them what no ill can remove
The Love that to the Love said “I Love”
(I did that from memory – self high five)
As a writer I urge you to credit what you crib! Apart from the good practice, in a Google dominated world you may get found out as a Knock Off Nigel and things will go downhill from there.
The Look Inside technique will work on the list above, although you might only get the first poem in each book. If you are in for something steamy then try Eiff’s 31 Tanka, it charts an entire relationship from start to end so there’ll be something for you in there, but definitely NSFW.
Remember the mantra – when all else fails a book will bail you out.
Good Luck and Happy Valentine’s Day