Love After Love by Derek Walcott: Reading & Commentary
In my new book Poetry Rx: How 50 Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life, I have included each poem for a reason. Essentially, it is my fervent belief that each poem in the book is capable of healing or bringing joy to people.
Love after love, for example, can be a pick-me-up for those in the aftermath of a break-up. In this poem the great Caribbean poet Derek Walcott uses the image of a person coming home in the aftermath of a break-up coming home and greeting yourself not with a grief stricken-face but with elation. He follows that with advice about ways of recovering at such a time. He uses the image of the mirror as both a method of healing from a break-up and a metaphor for the necessary process of self-reclamation.
I present the poem below and encourage you also to listen to my reading and commentary in the accompanying video.
You can read more about specific ways to recover from the pain of a breakup in my book Poetry Rx.
Love After Love by Derek Walcott
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.
How the Poet Achieves His Effect
Wow! What a lot this great poet has crammed into such a short poem! His style is deceptively simple. I say “deceptively” because with simple words, mostly of one syllable, the poet conjures up a crisis familiar to most of us with accuracy and poignancy. I have read this poem many times, and each time I feel the poet’s warmth for the reader (me) and, perhaps with the help of my mirror neurons, reciprocate that warmth. It is interesting to wonder how he achieves his magic.
The tone of the poem is direct and intimate. It is like the advice a good friend (or parent) might give. The poet suggests that you be that friend to yourself.
There is something compelling about the way the poet offers instructions, beginning with short and simple directives, that later becomes more sophisticated. In the process, the poet leads the reader step by step into a program of self-care. But the poet uses other tricks as well.
One method you might find interesting is called enjambment, an established poetic technique that goes back hundreds of years, but is used effectively in the present poem. Look at the first stanza for example and see how none of the lines ends with a period. The technique has the effect of keeping you waiting for what the next line has to say for the milliseconds it takes for your eyes to jump from one line to the next.
In addition, in this particular poem even the separate stanzas do not end with a period but jump over the long space between one stanza and the next. In so doing, the quick brain asks itself a question that goes something like, “Okay. What next?” For fun take a look at the stanzas and see whether you have that experience of suspense as your eyes jump from one incomplete sentence to the next.
Take the gap between the second and third stanza for example, which reveals that the stranger has not only loved you but has done so all your life. In the words of the song, “Not for just an hour, not for just a day, but always.” Likewise, between the third and fourth stanza the poet directs the reader to take down the love letters from the bookshelf. Love letters are usually full of declarations of love. You are more likely to write them in the falling-in-love stage than when you are breaking up. Nowadays, of course you are more likely to look at all the old texts and the ghostly silence that follows.
Jump over to the next stanza, as the enjambment holds you in suspense as you see what you have to take down next, the photographs (presumably taken during good times), and the desperate notes (usually written when a relationship is faltering).
So, you see, even though this poem is written in free verse (meaning no formal structure and rhyme scheme), the poet still uses the tricks of poetry to create the magical mix of profound ideas and feelings engendered in his short masterpiece.
Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. Reading & Commentary
We hope you enjoyed this blog post. For those of you interested in reading the full chapter, which breaks down this poem further and offers more about the poet and the poem, as well as poignant takeaways for the reader–Poetry Rx is available on Amazon.
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