Don’t hate me because I’m a romantic.
Pity me, maybe. I’m a hopeless case, after all. Consider this: While other people were sitting around the pool last summer, page-turning their way through the latest John Grisham thriller, I could be found nosing into Li-Young Lee’s new book of poetry, one line at a time. Or worse — composing my own verse in my head.
Ridiculous, I know, but I can’t help myself. I would rather be reading poetry. Why? Well, I prefer wordplay over wordiness and ambiguity over adventure. Also, I have a short attention span, so I need short books with short sentences. I don’t require action scenes to advance the story’s plot; I don’t even require a plot. I do like endings, though, happy or otherwise, but I often enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
It’s for this reason I picked art classes over algebra in high school, or why I would rather be tending garden than cleaning gutters, or philosophizing over a pint in a dark pub instead of chit-chatting and bar-hopping on a Saturday night. That’s why I prefer The Smiths to Springsteen, nostalgia to the nightly news, Austin Powers to Steve Austin, 84, Charing Cross Road to 1984, daydreaming to day-trading, or falling head-over-heels to conquering mind-over-matter.
As I said, there’s no cure for me, and I’m OK with that. I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m more than a little frivolous and impulsive and often aimless in my pursuits (this is Scribbleskiff, after all). And I know most people don’t behave this way — shouldn’t behave this way, in fact. But, if you find yourself nodding your head in agreement here, this is my message to you: It’s alright to be like me, to be a romantic, every once in a while. It can’t hurt, even if it’s just once a year.
And that occasion, dear readers, is upon us. This Saturday is Valentine’s Day (man, I can hear the groaning already). Sure, it’s a cliche (at best) and a greedy, commercialized marketing scheme by the greeting card industry (at worst). But it’s also just one day, and it’s a good excuse to have a little fun by showing someone you care about that you, well, care about him or her.
Go ahead, be foolish and heart-headed, for 24 hours. You can do it. Read a sonnet to your sweetie at the breakfast table. Buy two dozen red roses and give your lover a flower every hour. Or fill her sock drawer full of Hershey’s Kisses. Or put a Whitman’s Sampler in his gym bag. What a sweet surprise these would make. A welcome diversion from the humdrum drone of everyday life, don’t you think?
I know, I know it all sounds so corny. You don’t need this kind of thing, do you? Instead of figuring out new ways to “compare” each other, you and your paramour would much rather spend the evening talking about the free-falling economy or guessing which celebrity will next be embarrassed in Michael Phelpsian proportions. Good plan. Not.
Of course, Valentine’s doesn’t have to be about heart-shaped boxes and expensive lingerie (not that there’s anything wrong with these). In fact, until the Middle Ages, Valentine’s Day had little to do with romantic love (or the making of it). Originally it was celebrated as a feast day in honor of several early Christian martyrs, all named Valentine. Not exactly fodder for titillating teasers on the cover of Cosmopolitan. Although one story goes that St. Valentine was so upset after being spurned by his mistress that he cut out his own heart and sent it to her, still beating, in a box. Sort of the opposite of “undying love,” if you think about it.
Luckily for us, a poet (aha!) named Geoffrey Chaucer and some others eventually came along and reclaimed the day in the name of courtly love. The idea of giving cards and confectionery arrived later, in the mid 19th Century (along with the blabbing of Victoria’s secrets), and the holiday as we know it today was born.
So whether you are a lifelong devotee of the holiday, or a newly converted celebrant, here are some suggestions for setting the proper mood to romance your Valentine:
What to Read: Poems, of course (what better way to learn the ways of woo). But which ones? Well, to start with, there are the inquisitive “Thee” classics that everyone knows, such as Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee …?” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How do I love thee?…” Etc. There are hundreds of other love poems out there to choose from, by writers well-known and otherwise. The Web site Poets.org has plenty of suggestions, including those by Ben Jonson, Emily Dickinson, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, to name a few.
Great stuff, for sure, but not likely to get the blood running in the right direction anymore. For that you need something by someone like Kim Addonizio, or this one by Gwendolyn Brooks, which I found in a recent issue (and the last, alas) of Book World. Other contenders I like include Ezra Pound’s epistolary translation of “The River-Merchant’s Wife” by Li Po; the title poem from (and several within) When a Woman Loves a Man, by David Lehman; or the unadorned, direct “typewriter poems” collected in The Love Poems of James Laughlin, such as this one (in its entirety):
It Was the First Time
we had made love and I asked
her what she would like me to
do what would give her pleas-
ure but she wouldn’t tell me
she said I must find out for
myself it would be better so.
Perhaps my most recent favorite book of love poems is Valentines, published last year by former U.S. Laureate Ted Kooser. This slim volume collects the 20-plus poems he wrote and sent out each year to any woman who wanted one. His mailing list eventually grew from a couple dozen to several thousand female recipients, mostly strangers. Vain, foolish, and a little risky — sounds like the right ingredients for romance to me.
What Music to Play: Barry White is all you need, right? Well, maybe, but not right away. Try Frank Sinatra first, or any of the other like-voiced crooners, from Bing to Buble, to get things going. Nothing like a little swingin’ string section to help you relax and unwind. In fact, this January Rhino Records released Seduction: Sinatra Sings of Love, a collection of The Chairman’s best-known love songs, including “A Fine Romance,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “It Had to Be You,” and (appropriately) a new version of “My Funny Valentine.”
After that? Now comes Mr. White? Not yet. It’s time to get creative. For instance, Starbucks is selling a new CD called Sweetheart, a mixtape’s worth of great love songs covered by contemporary artists: standouts include Death Cab for Cutie doing The Cure’s “Love Song,” Jem’s mellow version of “Yellow” by Coldplay, A.C. Newman’s take on A-ha’s “Take on Me” (remember the video?), Rogue Wave’s shimmery cover of “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and She & Him’s haunting remake of “I Put a Spell on You.”
Or you can make your own compilation. Jazzy, sultry songs like Van Morrison’s classic “Sweet Thing” from Astral Weeks (which a friend just reintroduced me to), “Sweetest Taboo” by Sade, or “Each and Everyone” (or anything on Eden) by Everything But the Girl work wonders for fueling the emotions. But to my mind humor may be the best aphrodisiac. Cuing up the wry “The Book of Love” on the ambitious 69 Love Songs, by The Magnetic Fields (which turns 10 this year), or the goofy, self-deprecating “Business Time”, by Flight of the Conchords, will get your groove going, make you do the overbite, and put a smile on your date’s face. Then it’s Barry time.
What to Drink: Despite what Hollywood movie-makers want you to believe, offering to do shots of Tequila may not be the most romantic gesture you can make in the barroom. Especially if your ultimate goal is to wind up in a horizontal position at the end of the night — so I suspect lying face down on the floor, with a mouthful of sawdust and your head in a vice, isn’t what you have in mind.
No, any savvy bartender or home-based mixologist would suggest a fancier (if not more fanciful) cocktail, especially one with a sweet, malt-based drink like bourbon. For example, I like preparing an old-time Old Fashioned — there’s a sensual quality to the muddling of the ingredients that using a noisy, ice-cold, metal shaker cannot match. Another tantalizing drink that requires a little extra love is the opulent Diamonds and Pearls.
Of course, the best way to enhance l’amour is to add some chocolate to the mix. With that in mind, try a Spiked Cocoa (but modify it with this recipe if your lovey lives lactose-free). And, as I have written previously, the malty sweetness and residual sugar in beer make it a great match for candy or any kind of dessert. Wine and Champagne may be traditional accompaniments to Valentine’s Day confections, but as Garrett Oliver advises, they only match the sweetness. Beer, on the other hand, particularly beer made with roasted malts, mirrors the entire spectrum of flavors in the after-dinner treats, especially chocolate — from milky-sweet to dark and bitter. So open a bottle of “Choklat” Stout from Southern Tier, for instance, or Brewery Ommegang’s “Chocolate Indulgence” to enjoy with that devil’s food you are serving, and your date will melt in your hands.
Now, I am well aware that if you are not in a serious relationship, of any kind (or even if you are), V-Day can seem more like D-Day. But rather than hide out and feel sorry for yourself, go practice your love (as former President Bush might say) on someone who might not expect it: your mom or dad, your siblings, your children, your pet.
Or just go out and be nice to the next person you meet. Buy a bunch of red carnations from the folks selling them on the street corner and hand them out one at a time to people passing by. Stand on a park bench and recite poems outloud (here’s where Ms. Browning’s poetic “counting” could come in handy). Play “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” on your car stereo, turn it up real loud, and drive around with the windows open.
Who knows, it could be fun, and you might make a total stranger feel good. (See, I told you I was hopeless.) And if they ask you what you’re doing, tell them you’re spreading the gospel of St. Valentine.
As always, let me know what you think about this week’s post. What’s your favorite love poem? Did I overlook a classic romantic song or singer? Is beer really better than wine with dessert?