Sunday, November 18, 2007
"Valentine", a poem by Frank Bidart
An interesting poem, bearing the name “Valentine”, I suppose, because so much failure to keep solemn promises, lies, thefts and endless manner of behavior that wind up harming those close, beloved, trusted equally rationalized with the evocation of “love”. What we come to read is an emerging realization that the most intimate term of selflessness and dedication to other people is used to keep wives, husbands, children, and generations, latched to and lashed by psychologies that do them ill and rob them of what they can become. It begins in youth, a young man experiencing duplicities in the name of love, and in the righteousness of untested conviction makes a pledge, he says , my case will be different:
How those now dead used the word love bewildered
and disgusted the boy who resolved he
would not reassure the world he felt
love until he understood love
Conviction gets tested in intervening years and, finding that experience won’t conform to the dictates and conditions of theoretical idealness, the protagonist discovers the need to invent new definitions for old words, that meanings are subjective and change, colored by experience and coined from reflex; he uses love in situations he thought he’d never find himself in, he uses a term he had wanted to keep personally uncorrupted.
Resolve that too soon crumbled when he found
within his chest
something intolerable for which the word
because no other word was right
must be love
must be love
The hardest task in the world one lives in with others is explaining oneself, of getting across the nuances and finer points in the terms they use; meanings and context get larger, less focused, the ground rules one has set for themselves for authenticity are negotiated, compromised. How one thinks of love becomes private, internal, a condition
of being that’s rare and precious and finally incommunicable in terms that are not wholly false. “Love” becomes a short hand for any impulse one has, any obsession that forms and becomes malignant, harmful.
Love craved and despised and necessary
the Great American Songbook said explained our fate
my bereft grandmother bereft
father bereft mother their wild regret
How those now dead used love to explain
Banged about, exhilarated, betrayed and betrayer , the protagonist shoulder’s his abused idealism, attempts to be stoic about the pragmatic choices he’s been forced to make with his idealism given a life that took it’s own course despite his plans to discover the meaning of “love” and so use the word unambiguously. But ambiguity is all there is here, and he becomes cynical, debasing and expanding and modifying his beloved term to the degree that words and actions are not coherent and congruent. It’s a sad sequence of snapshots Frank Bidart has given the reader, a compressed tale about the making of cynic who couldn’t sustain a passion for life beyond the disabusing of his optimism.
This is compression at its finest, and the sentences take odd turns and twists of implication without an overgenerous supply of biography; this is writing Don DeLillo, who writes the best sentences in American English, would enjoy. Like DeLillo, the history of a particular word is traced and its modulations are succinctly characterized. One may lack a name, one may not know anything in the way of biography, but what makes this poetic is the beauty of the revelations; it unfolds like a bright conversation you’re overhearing where you’ve pieced together the scenario although you lack the back-story. The effect is that you recognize something you’ve seen elsewhere. It is the shock of recognition.