If you feel alone or are missing a loved one this Valentines Day I suggest finding or re-finding a good poet to keep you company. Rilke is one of my favorites, alongside Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Nikki Giovanni. A good love poem seems to have the ability to rejoice in the presence of love, as well as comfort our loss or our fear of loss.
Poetry is similar to the fourth dimension, in that it has this amazing ability to connect us throughout time and space. For-example, in the summer of 1865, when the nation was mourning the loss of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman wrote, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”.
Before I knew this, I had read the poem and immediately felt connected to the more peaceful, though to me equally tragic, death of my mother who died on May 2nd, 1994. The lilacs were in bloom that day too.
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.”
Poetry probably comes closest, after religion, to helping us believe that love, like the lilac, is truly perennial. In a world of too much suffering it’s really the most wonderful idea! I come by my romanticism honestly, of-course: My grandmother’s favorite poet was an earlier romantic, Percy Bryce Shelley. He wrote very similarly about love and loss:
Music, When Soft Voices Die
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heap’d for the belovèd’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
My grandmother was particularly fond of the men in her life(!), which included her male poets, but let me not forget some of the great female love poets. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for-example. Her sonnet, “How do I love thee?” beautifully ends with a similar theme,
“I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God chooses,
I shall but love thee better after death.”
Still, Rilke is my favorite. One of my earliest mentors, Dr. Evelyn Leauchli, shared the poem below with us, her mentees, years and years ago. Then, it felt like a love poem to my future self, and now it feels like a love poem to my past self!
“Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breathe increases space.
Among the rafters of the dark belfries sing
your own sweet tones. What feeds on you
will grow strong upon such nourishment.
Be conversant with transformation
From which experience have you suffered most?
If drinking is bitter to you, turn into wine.
Be, in this immeasurable night,
the magic power at your sense’s crossroad;
Be the meaning of their strange encounter.
And if the earthly has forgotten you,
say to the still earth: I flow.
Claim to the rapid water: I am.”
When I need to shake things up a bit because I am feeling hurt or angry, I turn to a poet like Nikki Giovanni who makes me laugh with her fearless aggression because I recognize that in myself too and it also feels like it’s part of the eternal, connected nature of love and loss:
WHEN I DIE
“when i die i hope no one who ever hurt me cries
and if they cry i hope “their eyes fall out
and a million maggots that had made up their brains
crawl from the empty holes and devour the flesh
that covered the evil that passed itself off as a person
that i probably tried
And with that aggression momentarily out of my system, together or alone this Valentines Day, here is my actual wish for you:
Letters to a Young Poet
“Therefore, dear (one), love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; ….believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke,
This letter fills me with a sense of hope that there really is a love this large, because it feels like Rilke found a way to travel through time and space all the way to me with his words. In fact, his love is so large, it extends to all of us who read his words, not just me.
I hope that my words may someday do the same; be a comfort to my own, or someone else’s children. Or that your words will. But it won’t matter because we’re all connected anyway. (It would be wonderful to hear any of your favorite love poems in the comments below.)