Poetry and I are friends. In fact, poetry is a central part of my job. My passion for verse is bottomless. Thankfully! I don’t believe myself actor enough to fake it. I teach teenage boys poetry. A LOT of poetry. Outsiders often comment. Not for all the money in the world, they say, could I do that. I have found however that if you love looking at mouseholes enough and have some oratory skill then you can definitely convince someone else to have a peek too!
Poems are too depressing. I often hear this. I agree. The poetry we force our children to study often is. So today, as a Valentine’s gift to poetry, I handpicked a few poets and their works that my classes engaged with and are linked by a central theme of love. My interest in these particular poems is how their subjects appear versus their topics in reality. Famous for, renowned for, or presumably about love are how they outwardly seem. In reality, however, other themes pervade that make me question how much these poems deserve to be filed in the ‘Romance’ section. Really, these poems made excellent classroom discussion making my day feel worthwhile.
‘On Raglan Road’ by Patrick Kavanagh.
‘On Raglan Road’ is one of Ireland’s great poems. Set to music,as ‘The Dawning of the Day’ it can often be heard as a plaintive ballad, sung without accompaniments and to a crowd where a pin could drop with a mighty crash. Easy to teach as most pupils will have heard the tune and I find that boys like to hum along to Irish ballads learning the words as they go. A truly great love song from Kavanagh to his beloved? So it seems. On closer inspection however, my class and I thought not!
On first impressions, the poem appears a devotion to love. Beautiful autumnal day, her wonderful dark hair and the alliterative and real Raglan Road itself all magically combine to the romance. He personifies the dark locks as ‘a snare’ that he might ‘one day rue’. We probably should see the threat peeping out here to true love. Kavanagh tells us himself! Yet the ‘danger’ is cancelled out through the imagery of the ‘enchanted way’, a metaphorical love road that he travels. He ignores the grief he believes that may befall him. At this point, Kavanagh appears very much the lovestruck young man, a puppy dog at her feet. She is all powerful. I feel I wrongly imagine a magnificent, yet somewhat icy woman. Then I must remind myself. We only have Kavanagh’s image and words, one sided to say the least. I think I must give the lady a chance before she is mischarged, another Boleyn girl associated with witchcraft by an egotistical dominater! Harsh words? Read on the poem!!
Kavanagh imagines himself dating her as such and how it is like walking a cliff edge. It is a ‘ravine’ where he may plummet at any minute. He is making no headway with her, ‘I not making hay’ mourns . I wonder if this girl is not wishing Kavanagh might just leave her alone? Is it possible he is being blinded to her indifference? It does not seem that they are dating at all. We think that she has the made the mistake of being nice to him and he is now imagining more than is real. Can this happen? Both male and female students have thought yes, it most certainly can!
Is Kavanagh arrogant to push his chances with a girl that may have no interest in him romantically? Look at the third quatrain. A distinctly self- pitying Kavanagh tells us of the ‘gifts of the mind’ and ‘poems to say with her own name’ he lavished upon her. This is fine and nice of him! He feels his written work is a wonderful gift of talent that she may not be appreciating. However,we see bitterness appear in the final stanza as he appears to refer to himself as as ‘angel’ wooing a creature of the earth, a mere mortal, ungifted perhaps as he might be, and who may have put him in danger of losing his ‘wings’ as realisation dawns that she doesn’t love him. Arrogant Kavanagh! My students have asked me was Kavanagh in fact gone so far to as to stalk this girl? A modern teenager’s outlook on love. If he had Facebook would he have hounded her? As it stands, he only seemed to meet her by chance on the streets of Dublin, as life was before social media, and as she was ‘walking now away from me so hurriedly’ this surely was a sign that she was disinterested. She may as well have pressed ‘unfriend’ or ‘unfollow’!
Is it a love poem? We aren’t sure if love is here.Obsession maybe. My class don’t feel it deserves to be seen as a true love poem as it gives creedance to obsessional behaviour! I cannot help but love this poem however. Kavanagh most certainly writes beautifully. I will always stop talking and fall into the silence of a hushed crowd when someone chooses to gift us with singing this beautiful piece. It is just a niggle that I have actually listened to the words and know all is not well with love in this case!
‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy
It is the title that made my students confused here. They expected flowers and chocolates, promises and favours. What was the onion all about? The boys really didn’t see what Duffy was getting at. Was she serious? Would she really give her lover a symbolic vegetable? Or was it only words? They reckoned their girlfriends would not be impressed by such a pungent gift. They definitely decided they wouldn’t like to receive it. This excludes one well meaning chap who thought it would be fine if you were starving hungry! Interestingly, I found that teenage girls loved this poem. The ongoing metaphor worked so simply for them. One girl raved about this being her favourite poem. It made me wonder. Would these girls have appreciated this gift or indeed given it themselves?
Why I chose this poem is because of the underlying sinister element that I often find with Duffy. Her poems fascinate me and I return to them for class discussions as practice work even if they are off exams that year. From the outset, we are tricked by Duffy. The title plays a mind games with us as we imagine the connotations associated with Valentine’s day. However she then uses adjectives and verbs such as ‘fierce’, ‘possessive’, ‘lethal’ and ‘cling’, assaulting us with a love that is vicious or violent in imagery. We are left with an image that should be the antithesis of a Valentine: a knife. Yes, she is just chopping the onion. Do we feel safe? No. Is this the stereotype of love we expected? No. Love as a strong scented, cloying nasty stench that will not leave you hardly inspires you to desire a relationship. Has Duffy written a love poem? We argued that she had. Do we want irony for Valentine’s day? Overwhelmingly, the answer was no.
Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare and love are almost synonymous. The original rom-com writer, I believe the Jennifer Anistons and Hugh Grants of this world should be on their knees in gratitude to this writer as they make their millions with his perfected formula: single people, meet cute, terrible mix up, resolution, kisses and weddings. Can you think of a single successful rom -com that doesn’t match this formulaic style, from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ to ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’? We love it.
How is it then that my favourite love poem and the one my students cannot get enough of is ‘Sonnet 130’? It is here that Shakespeare falls away from expectations. It should be a love poem. Yet it does not match criteria! Where are the comparisons to a summer’s day? In fact, her eyes are ‘nothing like the sun’. He directly attacks age old and clichéd similes by giving a more ‘real’ impression of his mistress. My boys are horrified. Does she smell Miss? What’s wrong with her hair? How come she walks heavily? They all have a chuckle when breasts are mentioned, as boys do, and I go on to explain how a suntan symbolised your lack of wealth and necessity to work in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. They laugh and talk about the ‘orange effect’ that tanning has now and how obsessed girls and guys are with it. Slowly our Taylor Swifts and Kristen Stewarts revert this style once again as their breasts are not ‘dun’ and then it is time to move on from the breast talk!
Is it a love poem? Most definitely so. Unlike Duffy, Shakespeare saves it in the end by calling his love ‘rare’. We cannot help but feel though he is saying despite your normalities, your flaws, your imperfections I cannot help but love you. Do lovers want you be told this? Probably not. Do they therefore want fibs and exaggerations? My class reckoned yes. So, my ass probably does look big in this…at least I hope the mistress didn’t ask baldly candid William Shakespeare the day he wrote this sonnet as he had definitely drank truth serum. She would probably clip him across the ear to hear the answer.
A triad of love poems that are in fact not that loving! I still love each one as a work of art.