Sunday Poetry: Love After Love, by Derek Walcott

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

— by Derek Walcott
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When I first read this poem, I thought it was simple. In a way, I was correct. It serves up no complex words, and it doesn’t play “hide the ball” with at least one of its major themes. It’s good to love yourself sometimes, when you spend so much of your time focused on loving others. You read this poem, you “get it”, and you feel like you know what the poet was after. It’s like a short pass in the middle of the field – the quarterback delivers the ball to the tight end for a short gain. It is what it is, and it serves its function.

And here’s where you, as a reader, can make your choices. Let’s carry that football metaphor a little further. You’re the tight end, and you just caught the ball in traffic. (You, as a reader, in the traffic of the modern world, have focused your attention on to this poem and caught it, which is a pretty impressive feat when you have other things to be doing, whether it is to read the next poem in the anthology, make eye contact with that attractive person across the library table, go to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, or whatever.) You’ve done your job, and the quarterback has done his. Take your three yard gain and line up for the next play.

But here’s where the great ones prove themselves. You’ve got the ball, you’re getting tackled by other drains on your attention, and now is the time when you can break this one for a big play or not, depending on your field of vision and the strength of your determination. If you can break that first tackle, you could run pretty far with this poem.

Give wine? Give bread? Wait a minute – that is some pretty heavy imagery there – what is God doing in this poem? Think about that one for a while, and you might find yourself running down the right sideline and wind up in the end zone of some fresh insights about God and love.

Love after love? What does that after mean? Does that mean that you can only fall in love with yourself after you’ve loved someone else? The loving is again, the giving is back to yourself, and the love letters are already on the shelf – you’ve been here before. What does that mean in the context of loving yourself? If you push your way through those thoughts, you’ll get a first down, at least.

What does it mean to peel your own image from the mirror? You peel things that are thin, just like the mirror itself. It’s just an image – when you peel yourself off the mirror, are you somehow achieving wholeness by destroying an imitation? How does that relate to the mirror image in the first stanza – the one that greeted you and got this whole thing started? And is the mirror a door back then? A door to what? This is open field running here.

This poem is a completed pass, and so much depends on the receiver.

6 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: Love After Love, by Derek Walcott”

  1. I don’t care for poetry. At all.

    I don’t want to guess what the poet meant. I don’t want to fill in the gaps.

    If the author/poet is trying to convey a concept or idea, they should choose language that does so unambiguously.

    If they use language so vague and suggestive that I have to connect the dots my self, why do I need the poet? I can do that on my own.

    Poetry is an artistic scam. Throw together a random word salad, call it “poetry” and put the burden on the reader to make sense of it.

    Literary nonsense.

    If you want to convey an idea or concept, choose words and construct sentences that do so unambiguously.

    If you want to be a “poet”, throw random words and phrases together like paint in a Jackson Pollack painting and let the viewer/reader sort it out.

    Bullshit wrapped in pretense and packaged as “art”.

    I have no patience for ambiguity.

    Choose words that say what you mean.

  2. gonemild says:

    Well-stated, XO. And hilariously off-base, to the point of self-satire.

    You do care for the sound of words. Look at your first two sentences. Why the break? It has to do with rhythm, doesn’t it?

    Your use of metaphor, from “word salad” to “bullshit”, shows that you want to use images to convey concepts more vividly than simply choosing words “that say what you mean.” Why employ metaphors at all, if you’re trying to be unambiguous.

    I can appreciate your frustration with poets who make you think hard. Some of them are self-centered idiots. Some of them are worth it, though.

  3. les says:

    Dan to XO–

    Your use of metaphor, from “word salad” to “bullshit”, shows that you want to use images to convey concepts more vividly than simply choosing words “that say what you mean.”

    I think you’re making Brother (?) Onassis’ point here–he’s not saying there’s a problem with metaphor or vivid language, ’cause his use delivers a clear message. Says what he means, so to speak. The problem is metaphor or other construction that mostly obscures the message. I don’t feel quite so broadly negative about poetry as XO; but it seems mostly a case where the form overwhelms the message. Most poets force me to think, not about the core or profundity of a message, but mostly about what the hell message is buried in the medium.

  4. [...] friend pointed out to me in another forum that I, myself, had missed a major allusion – Derek Walcott’s Love After Love is clearly written in reaction to the above poem, by George Herbert almost 400 years [...]

  5. [...] few postings ago, I wrote about how Love After Love gained depth for me after I read Love III. Today’s poem is far less subtle – it poses [...]

  6. I recently came across this graceful and beautiful poem, again, in a wonderful book, When You’re Falling, Dive by Mark Matousek. It found me at a point in my life when I can fully truly appeciate the depth of its truth and beauty, and I am just inexplicably grateful! The words move my heart and my very soul.

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