Love and Poetry

by James Papp

The first time I heard Philip Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” recited to me from memory and in its entirety was on a Valentine’s Day date with Sarah in 1992. In fact we recited it in unison, and though I don’t know who started it, I knew it boded ill, spiting my lavish expenditure on long-stemmed roses and the usual trappings of romance.

Thirteen years later I heard it being recited over the telephone to me by a girl I fancied; I fancied Constance the more because she knew poems by heart; and I wrote two poems to her, the first of which provoked her interest while the second merely provoked her, and she refused to read it. Which is a pity, as it was the best of the love poems I had written till then, or at any rate the least bad, and the only poems I write are love poems, poetry by heart.

Larkin, talking to the Paris Review, said (and one wouldn’t have expected it of him), “Some time ago I agreed to help judge a poetry competition—you know, the kind where they get about 35,000 entries, and you look at the best few thousand. After a bit I said, Where are all the love poems? And nature poems? And they said, Oh, we threw all those away. I expect they are the ones I should have liked.”

There seems to me no genre of literature or perhaps of any art other than poetry that is adequate for love. I attribute the bad reputation of love poems in the modern world in part to the bad reputation of love but also to the fact that the only kind of poem that many people will ever write themselves is a love poem, which is the same reason crocheted tea cosies have a bad reputation. Teaching a modern poetry survey in Vienna, I had the students write poems, because you can’t really understand anything unless you do it yourself, and I shared with them my love poems to my Hungarian girlfriend in spite of their badness, because of their badness, because you can’t understand good art unless you look regularly at bad art.

Shortly after, my Hungarian girlfriend left me because I was either too dangerous or too dull (fifteen years later, when she finally told me why, she could not make up her mind between these two seemingly contradictory explanations, though she had since changed her mind about both), and I was teaching a survey course to sixty girls in Bratislava on the poetry of love and death (which I could not decide between).

When Mária and I met after those fifteen years, we immediately began exchanging poems: Pushkin, Yeats, Thomas, Bryusov, Hrabal, Cummings, Neruda, Marvell, Menashe, Akhmatova—but especially Pushkin, and reading Pushkin to define your love is like finally opening the bomb-making manual with a sigh of inevitability. We emailed copies we had found on the Internet, mailed books with our own notes in them, and wrote our own poems to each other, when our feelings reached such a pitch we could not communicate in any other way.

On a blustery railway platform in the London suburb of Seven Kings, the words

Az a kék ajandék,

(“This blue gift” [the color of my mood as I traveled farther from her]), began to repeat themselves in my head, then

amit a szél
és nem hisz,
de elvisz
hideg Hét Kiralyokbol,
az a kertedet keres.

(“—which the wind misconstrues, flings aside, cannot use, yet carries from cold Seven Kings—searches for your garden” [in the Danube basin, basking in a heat wave]).

It is a bad poem, of dubious grammar, mixes English and Hungarian idioms, is doggerel, really, a lullaby, maybe; has nothing to be said for it but the fact that by the time the train pulled in it had concentrated my unhappiness and happiness, my hope and regret in such a way as to be meaningful to only two people far away from one another, to whom it turned out to be as useless as a crocheted tea cosy is useful, and what more can one expect of poetry? For like Lady Bracknell, after fifteen years Mária had changed both the fashion and the side and decided that though I was not dull, dullness was what she wanted, or at least all that she could bear.

Her poems were good, really good, tranquility recollected in emotion, like watercolors where the object represented and the spontaneous stroke of paint that represents it are not distinguishable. But I promised to never show them to anyone.

—James Papp

James has taught English literature at UCLA and Comenius University in Bratislava; has been associate director of English Programs at the Modern Language Association and manager of the Fencers Club in New York; currently deals in and restores old master and nineteenth-century drawings and paintings and antique frames; and directs the online museum

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