Monday, February 14, 2011

Thoughts on Valentines Day or What to Do While Waiting on Your Muse

I'll admit that I've never had a knack for special holiday gifts and celebrations. I never find my cute Valentine's Day pins until about March or April. I either think of some great gift idea on the 12th but can't pull it off or I think of a great idea on the 16th of February and can't remember it for 363 more days.

Valentine's Day (like all holidays) is even more of a challenge for women than men. At least men have the no-brainer options of flowers or chocolates. But what do you get a man? A Valentine's Day tie? Please. No.

We celebrated the occasion a few days early with a trip to the mountains, and while there I read in one of the little local mountain papers some Valentine's gift suggestions. I'll admit the mix tape appeals to me, but I also liked the picture frame suggestion--maybe not a photograph but a poem.

Then this morning, heading off to work, I heard Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac on NPR, and he read a Valentine poem by Ted Kooser, rekindling an old envy. When Kooser served as the national poet laureate, he spoke at the NCTE convention (one of the first--if not the first to do so). In one session, he mentioned that he kept a mailing list of women to whom he mailed an annual Valentine's Day poem. I missed the mailing list, but two of my colleagues shared their mailing addresses, and sure enough--along came their poems on postcards, suitable for posting on the bulletin board where I could see and envy.

Evidently two or three years ago, Kooser collected and published the poems in a book called, appropriately enough, Valentines. All day I've been thinking about the gift of poetry. No one receiving a poem as a gift is likely to critique it (unless you have the misfortune of one poor well-meaning poet I encountered: spell check couldn't overcome her faux pas, leaving a reference to the "genital winds" that blew in her face in a poem submitted to a writing contest.)

What does it take to write a Valentine's Day poem (or a birthday or Christmas or Thanksgiving poem)? You already have a couple of the most important elements--a purpose and a deadline. One cannot wait wistfully for the muse to strike when a deadline approaches. For those who lack the poetic bent, there is the option of parody (unlike plagiarism in which the object is to steal, not to attribute and honor). Take a poem you love and adapt it: Shakespeare compared his love (real or imagined) to a summer's day. That leaves you three other seasons. Wallace Stevens had "Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird." You can pick your number and your focus.

Keep in mind that rhyme is not necessary (and can be a deterrent, not an asset). Keep it concrete. Avoid love, dove, above rhymes and choose objects from nature that make the abstract concrete.

Humor can be romantic. I still have a slim volume of poems I bought from the Scholastic Book order in tenth or eleventh grade. Some of the poems are sober classics; others make me giggle. You'll never know if you can do it unless you try, right?

If all else fails, pick up a volume of someone else's poems and add a romantic inscription: On my own, I don't have the words.

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