“Valentine” opens with the speaker’s explicit rejection of typical Valentine’s Day fodder. The speaker chooses to call out hearts and roses, drawing from a pool of the most iconic, universal symbols of love. As a result, other symbols and related images begin to form in the reader’s head—candles, chocolates, wedding vows, The Bachelor franchise, and so on. As the speaker refutes them throughout the poem, these images will come to represent overly romanticized, fraudulent narratives about love. The speaker sets up this symbolism in this initial remark.
The speaker then juxtaposes these sugarcoated, romanticized representations of love with a much less sentimental image:
I give you an onion.
The speaker’s decision to give the onion as a Valentine indicates that the speaker’s experience of love is very different from its mainstream portrayals.
The stanza break that separates lines 1 and 2 reflects the distance between how love is presented and the speaker’s reality. The end-stops that punctuate these opening statements establish the credibility of the speaker, who comes across as direct and confident. Plus, the simple structure and abruptness of these sentences resists the flowery language usually associated with love poems, greeting cards, etc.
Furthermore, line 1 contains consonant /r/ sounds, which recall growling and work with /t/ sounds to give the line a harsh tone. The meter reinforces the effect by further emphasizing syllables that contain consonant sounds. Plus, the high concentration of stressed syllables in this line gives it rhythmic force:
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
The /n/ sound within “not” that opens the poem then bleeds into the next line. This consonance creates continuity between the lines, both bridging the stanza gap and suggesting a relationship between them. More specifically, it subtly reinforces the reader’s understanding that “an onion” is “Not a red rose.” By introducing the onion as an alternative to cheesy representations of love, the speaker sets up the poem’s overarching conceit—an onion as the proper symbol for love.
Conceits are typically long, elaborate comparisons between two seemingly contrasting things. As a result, the relationship between these two things tends to be laid out via wit and reason, rather than the senses, which allows the speaker to avoid the sensuous imagery that love poems traditionally feature. Thus, this form of metaphor is consistent with the speaker’s broader dismissal of conventional, idealized depictions of love.
The meter of line 2, which consists of two amphibrachs (unstressed-stressed-unstressed), is much mellower than that of line 1:
I give you | an onion.
This gentle rhythm foreshadows two stylistic trends that will permeate the rest of the poem—amphibrachs will reappear, serving as the first foot for about one-third of the poem’s lines; and the speaker will use softer sounds when describing the onion, while using harder sounds used to describe traditional symbols of love.
Finally, line 2 introduces apostrophe, as it becomes clear that the speaker is addressing a silent party. This silent party is the speaker's lover. Apostrophe increases the authenticity of the speaker, because the speaker is shown interacting with someone important to them. Therefore, it also heightens the poem’s emotional stakes. Furthermore, apostrophe places the audience in the position of the speaker’s lover, eliciting the reader’s empathy and building intimacy between the speaker and the reader. Indeed, apostrophe is established through an image of the speaker holding out a gift, literally reaching out to the reader.