Or perhaps you thought it was sacrilege when Whitney Houston sang, “The Greatest Love of All?” I admit, back in my church days I thought the sentiment of self-love was, well, selfish. It seemed anti-love to me. But even then there was something to my mother’s admonishment. Maybe your mother said it too? “How can you love anyone else if you cannot first love yourself?” I thought it was modern psycho-babble, self-worshiping liberalism.
But even the Bible, as one of my mother’s old books reminded me, contains the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The book–I think it might have been When I Say No I Feel Guilty, by Manuel J. Smith, but maybe not, she had many books like this–it insisted, and I am quoting from memory as best I can, “The command was not to love others better than yourself, or instead of yourself, or to love others and hate yourself, but to love others as yourself.” The assumption of the verse is that we already love and care for ourselves, as we should, being god’s creation.
I wonder now if it was the church of guilt that taught us to hate ourselves, a misinterpretation, a twisting of Jesus words, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” Of course, we shouldn’t be so immersed in our own self-importance that we neglect or hurt others, but that’s not what basic self-love is about. It’s about caring, self-respect, nurturing ourselves so that we can be a nourishment to others as well. It’s a balance of those things. Love others as we love ourselves. It’s not an either-or situation, is it? Funny how in relationships we lose sight of this.
The Poem at Hand:
But look at me, I’ve wandered off into interpretation and commentary again. Let’s get back to the poem. My friend John, over at Poetically Versed read this little gem recently, and I’ve been wanting to record it since then, way back in the middle of August. John has some great ideas on how we can learn more about poems, and ourselves, by reading them out loud, and then listening to the readings of others. Like John I was used to some of the longer works of Derek Walcott, including his epic poem Omeros, a novel-sized work I have been slowly reading for some time, another one of those volumes handed down from my mentor George before he died.
Like George’s hero Seamus Heaney who recently passed, Walcott is a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1992), as well as the T.S. Elliot Prize (2011). He’s a poet and a playwright who hails originally from Saint Lucia in the West Indies, and these day teaches in Boston when he is not at his home in Trinidad. You can read more about his life and work at the Poetry Foundation and NobelPrize.org. A simple google search will bring many of his shorter and longer works to your attention.
For John’s reading and some details about his project of reading poems out loud together click here. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to read this one yourself and share it. My reading and the text of the poem follow below. If you are on a mobile device that won’t play the file just click on the download option on the right to download it and listen.
Thank you, Mr. Walcott for this important reminder of love lost and rediscovered.
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.
― Derek Walcott, Collected Poems, 1948-1984
- Watch Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott’s new play online and listen to his thoughts (repeatingislands.com)
- New Book: Basins of a Globe : Essays on Derek Walcott (repeatingislands.com)
- Deus in Machina: poetic technique in Derek Walcott’s Omeros (3quarksdaily.com)
- “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott (poeticallyversed.com)