love after love
The time will come
when, with joy,
you will greet each other when you arrive
at your door, in your mirror,
and each will smile at the welcome of the other,
and say, sit here. To eat.
You’ll love the stranger that was you again.
Give wine. Give bread. give up your heart
to himself, to the stranger who loved you
all your life, that you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Remove the love letters from the library,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel off your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Enjoy your life.
– Derek Walcott, from “Collected Poems: 1948–1984” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986)
How can I choose this poem when the world is exploding around us, people are killing each other, starving, dispossessed and the planet is sick with pollution? I chose it for this reason. Because of hate, because of self-hatred, because I think we can’t love anyone unless we love ourselves.
It’s National Poetry Month, by the way. We primarily celebrate special months for things, people, and ideas that might otherwise be overlooked or taken for granted. I must say that poetry is certainly not neglected in our culture today. There is poetry rising from all sides — global poetry, poetry of the dispossessed, poetry of the witness. There are hundreds of small presses, small poetry collections and poetry journals, online and in print. There are poetry workshops. I’m teaching one on April 9 if you’re interested.
Each work of art builds on its predecessors. Walcott’s poem borrows from “Love (III)” by George Herbert (1593 -1633), a religious poem about the acceptance of love. Herbert’s poem ends with the lines: “You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”/ So I sat down and ate.”
And maybe it also borrows from the end of TS Eliot’s “Four Quartets”, which says: “And the end of all our explorations / Will be to arrive where we began / And know the place for the first times.”
Walcott’s little poem is emotionally sophisticated. Eventually, if you’re lucky, he writes, you’ll look yourself in the face. You really won’t see yourself as a stranger, a separate person, but as yourself. Virginia Woolf wrote: “We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.
This seems like a profound insight to me. It is only when we remain attached to ourselves that we have true freedom. We don’t try to be someone else, or seek love elsewhere because we don’t feel worthy of the name, or we feel safe putting someone else down. Poetry can help us see and accept, even welcome, who we are.
As Wolcott’s poem says, “Give your heart back / to itself, to the stranger who loved you / all your life, whom you ignored for another.”
Poetry is dangerous precisely because it is personal. It is the opposite of the crowd spirit which is so easily manipulated. Even when a poem is about war, for example, its words take us through the skin, to the true heart, which is stronger than any force trying to defeat it. Some time ago I saved these words from literary arts commentator Maria Popova – “The quality of our attention measures the quantity of our vitality – our only generator of resistance and perseverance.”
In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Where power leads man to arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limits…The artist…becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society.”
Derek Walcott is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. In 1992, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He also wrote plays. And he was a painter. He died in 2017 at his home on the island of Saint Lucia, a location that featured prominently in his oeuvre.