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How To Write Love Poems That Don't Suck

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By Jeremy Richards for Poetry Foundation

I once responded to a girlfriend’s love poem by critiquing its imagery. That relationship didn’t last long. After all, who was I to ignore Oscar Wilde’s bromide, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling”? Isn’t it heartless to greet florid devotion with a red pen, to rebuff earnest swoons with a call for better metaphors? But as always, this Valentine’s Day will prompt reams of gushy, heartfelt doggerel, reminding us that the greeting card industry relies on mass consumption of singsong rhymes to accompany the roses and chocolate-covered cherries. At other times of the year, we don’t see a rush for Easter villanelles or Arbor Day sonnets. But the love poem? That is universal. And as with anything universal, it’s damn hard to do without coming off as lovesick teenagers fumbling with scansion and sentiment.


To talk about this particular challenge, we invited four poets to discuss the art of the love poem, all of them poets who reinvent the subject not as lace and violets but as a shattered display window, “an ache and a kink,” “the black pulse of dominoes,” or “a bird/trapped in the terminal”—anything but what we’ve come to expect.

***

Adrian Blevins

What’s the most pressing challenge in approaching a love poem?
The trouble is not really the poetry but the feelings. We are raised on such cockamamie folklore that it’s all rather depressing when experience teaches us that the prince is not going to come riding in on his white horse. Oh, I’m not saying he doesn’t show up sometimes. But he’s not a prince, for one thing. And there’s no horse. And she’s not Cinderella either. Because, though he is fond of her cleavage and various things she might sometimes do or say, she’s got the worst taste in music he’s ever encountered. The problem with love poetry is that it must be felt and written by humans, who never feel one feeling at a time. I mean, love has fear in it. And guilt and misery and a special kind of hallucinating loneliness (says James Wright). The problem for the poet is how to get such a hodgepodge into one coherent space.

Where do you think most bad love poems go astray?
The trouble, again, is not the poetry but the heart. Even people who are trained to tell whatever truth is at hand have a hard time expressing this truth because, for one thing, they are so unknowing. I mean, we don’t really understand ourselves. We try and we try, but we’re a work in progress and mere mortals besides. Bad love poetry is bad because it is trite. Triteness is bad because it’s untrue, and untrueness is bad because it is a waste of time and energy and, somehow, unjust.

As a younger poet, did you ever fumble with the bad, saccharine attempts at love poems that most of us write? What can we learn from those fumbles?
The difficulty of being a young poet is not only or even mainly the problem of being an inexperienced line or image or metaphor maker, for these are problems a devotion to the tradition can fix. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the problem with the young poet is that she’s an inexperienced feeler. So she makes all kinds of mistakes with people. Mostly herself. I have indeed written the most hackneyed and hideous love poems imaginable. Abstract, yes, and if not full of purple flowers, full of something bad, anyway—somebody kneeling in front of somebody else holding some kind of ridiculous object! I think the most important thing any poet or writer can do to improve his or her odds of writing a good poem of any type is to learn continuously how to pay attention. Poetry is not about how we feel, of course. It’s about how we feel about how we feel. Knowing how we feel about how we feel requires an almost ungodly attentiveness or consciousness—an otherworldly watchfulness and vigilance. As does—maybe? —love?

"The Way She Figured He Figured It"

You get over these constant storms and learn to be married all over again, every day.
—Barry Hannah

The foyer is hers because the kettle is hers as it was made for water and the water is hers
because the sac that grew the baby was hers though the semen that made the sac was his
like his boots are his and the tea that’s of the kettle

after it enters his mouth is his unless it’s hers since it’s inside the kitchen that’s hers

and therefore not his unless he’s simmering the Asian sauces that are his
because they’re dense and knotty rather than milkish and paltry
like everything else from the nation state of the motherland

of the no-mercy child who won’t stop sucking and wanting and whining in the ear that is his

although the child herself belongs somehow to the woman and thus its hunger is hers
as is the bed and dresser and mirror and latch
though the hammer naturally is his and the saw and lumber

and back and muscle he suffered to build because he guessed he thought it would be

good for something besides this house like a pestilence of people who weren’t his
because nothing was his except the whirl he carried in his belly of the mix-up
of loving her in the first place

like being sucked into a burrow of lava embers and putting your tongue to it until it caught fire

and all he could say was that the burn was his—this hole in the mouth—
this fiasco of the woman bent now in the garden to smell the cilantro
as though she didn’t know his head was split

with hating her and loving her and hating her and loving her

because she was an ache and a kink and somehow the furrow—the groove and the rut—
and age and death and kiss and fuck and not-fuck and song and not-song
and no it was not sweet though he’d go on and carry it

since also—since mostly—it was.

“The Way She Figured He Figured It” was originally published in The American Poetry Review.

Adrian Blevins’s The Brass Girl Brouhaha (Ausable Press, 2003) won the 2004 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Blevins is also the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Foundation Award, a Bright Hill Press Chapbook Award for "The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes," and the Lamar York Prize for Nonfiction. A new book, "Live from the Homesick Jamboree," is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. Blevins teaches at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Rebecca Hoogs

What’s the most pressing challenge in approaching a love poem?
The most pressing challenge is to not write only love poems. I feel like I don’t approach love poems; they approach me. Usually I’m trying to avoid them, like at a party. When forced to confront them, when it’s just the two of us left at the long, picked-over buffet table, I try my hardest to counter cliché and easy sentimentality. This is why I took the approach of confronting cliché head-on in “Another Plot Cliché.” When love itself is a cliché, and almost every metaphor for it feels spent, the only approach is to turn those clichés inside out, push them so far that they explode and hopefully turn into something. The etymology of “cliché” traces back to “stamped in metal.” I want to turn our contemporary abstractions back into their original concrete (or metal) states.

Where do you think most bad love poems go astray?
There are so many places a bad love poem can go astray! Taking the poem or yourself too seriously is dangerous. Or they go astray when the author isn’t willing to find the edge. A good love poem lives in a tense state. If there’s no tension in the love, there’s no tension in the poem. “I love you, you’re perfect,” no matter how prettily said, is boring.

Is there a difference between a “love poem” and a poem about love?
Here’s a theory: what if “love poems” are poems that are in the thick of love, first blush, white-hot? In a love poem, the love still comes first. And perhaps a poem about love is less about the feeling than the relationship. It’s about the work that goes into making love still a feeling. A poem about love is always trying to get back to being a love poem, but there’s that tension again.

"Another Plot Cliché"

My dear, you are the high-speed car chase, and I,
I am the sheet of glass being carefully carried
across the street by two employees of Acme Moving
who have not parked on the right side
because the plot demands that they make
the perilous journey across traffic,
and so they are cursing as rehearsed
as they angle me into the street, acting as if
they intend to get me to the department store, as if
I will ever take my place as the display window, ever clear
the way for a special exhibit at Christmas, or be windexed
once a day, or even late at night, be pressed against
by a couple who can’t make it back to his place,
and so they angle me into the street, a bright lure,
a provocative claim, their teaser, and indeed
you can’t resist my arguments, fatally flawed
though they are, so you come careening to but and butt
and rebut, you come careening, you being
both cars, both chaser and chased, both good and bad, both
done up with bullets that haven’t yet done you in.
I know I’m done for: there’s only one street
on this set and you’ve got a stubborn streak a mile long.
I can smell the smoke already.
No matter, I’d rather shatter
than be looked through all day. So come careening; I know
you’ve other clichés to hammer home: women with groceries
to send spilling, canals to leap as the bridge is rising.
And me? I’m so through. I’ve got a thousand places to be.

“Another Plot Cliché” was originally published in "Poetry."

Rebecca Hoogs is the author of a chapbook, "Grenade" (2005), and her poems have appeared in Poetry, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Zyzzyva, The Journal, Poetry Northwest, The Florida Review, and others. She is the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony (2004) and Artist Trust of Washington State (2005). She is the Director of Education Programs and the curator and host of the Poetry Series for Seattle Arts & Lectures.

Cyrus Cassells

What’s the most pressing challenge in approaching a love poem?
The most pressing concern is conveying intimacy without shutting the reader out of the ecstatic feelings limned in a love poem—to give just enough information without lapsing into a dynamic akin to voyeurism and exhibitionism.

Where do you think most bad love poems go astray?
Bad love poems usually go into gauzy “soft focus,” ignore revealing details, and refuse to accurately and specifically portray real intimacy or the Beloved.

Is there a distinct aesthetic for a queer poet writing about love?
My goal in my homoerotic book of love poems, Beautiful Signor, was to claim traditional romantic tropes, primarily from the troubadour and Sufi traditions, for the gay community, to testify that we have “moons and Junes” as well. I wanted to create a springtime “garden” that straight people could walk into, too, and feel at home. So no, I don’t think there’s necessarily a distinct aesthetic, but I do believe that a queer poet writes with a keen sense of how love is often hindered or even imperiled by society’s and the traditional family’s rampant fears and prejudices.

"Beautiful Signor"

All dreams of the soul
End in a beautiful man’s or woman’s body.

—Yeats, “The Phases of the Moon”

Whenever we wake,
still joined, enraptured—
at the window,
each clear night’s finish
the black pulse of dominoes
dropping to land;

whenever we embrace,
haunted, upwelling,
I know
a reunion is taking place—

Hear me when I say
our love’s not meant to be
an opiate;
helpmate,
you are the reachable mirror
that dares me to risk
the caravan back
to the apogee, the longed-for
arms of the Beloved—

Dusks of paperwhites,
dusks of jasmine,
intimate beyond belief

beautiful Signor

no dread of nakedness

beautiful Signor

my long ship,
my opulence,
my garland

beautiful Signor

extinguishing the beggar’s tin,
the wind of longing

beautiful Signor

laving the ruined country,
the heart wedded to war

beautiful Signor

the kiln-blaze
in my body,
the turning heaven

beautiful Signor

you cover me with pollen

beautiful Signor

into your sweet mouth

This is the taproot:
against all strictures,
desecrations,
I’ll never renounce,
never relinquish
the first radiance, the first
moment you took my hand—

This is the endless wanderlust:
dervish,
yours is the April-upon-April love
that kept me spinning even beyond
your eventful arms
toward the unsurpassed:

the one vast claiming heart,
the glimmering,
the beautiful and revealed Signor.

"Beautiful Signor" was published by Copper Canyon Press in 1997.

Cyrus Cassells is the author of four acclaimed books of poetry: "The Mud Actor," "Soul Make a Path through Shouting," "Beautiful Signor," and :More Than Peace and Cypresses." His fifth book, "The Crossed-Out Swastika," is forthcoming in 2010 from Copper Canyon Press. Among his honors are a Lannan Literary Award, a Lambda Literary Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, two NEA grants, and a Pushcart Prize. He is a professor of English at Texas State University–San Marcos.

Craig Arnold

What’s the most pressing challenge in approaching a love poem?
For a poet at the beginning of the 21st century, I think the most difficult thing is how to navigate this brave new world, where we’re in the midst of making up our collective mind about what it means to be men and women. In the Western tradition most love poems have assumed a male poet writing to or about a female object, who can accept or refuse the offering but who doesn’t otherwise say much, and the formal conventions of poetry have crystallized around that assumption. There are those wonderful Provençal troubadour poems that imagine the poem as a dialogue, a back-and-forth between two mutually desiring individuals, but those are among the few exceptions. Now when we sit down to write poems to our lovers—or to the people we hope will be our lovers—we’re more likely to be thinking: What am I responding to? How do I hope this person will respond? How is this part of an ongoing conversation? With “Bird-Understander” I wanted to say not, as an Elizabethan courtly sonneteer might have said, “Look, I made your words into poetry, aren’t I fabulous?” but rather “Listen, what you said to me, it’s already poetry, better than anything I could write, and it would make me happy simply to have you see that.”

Where do you think most bad love poems go astray?
Any love poem has to strike a careful balance between the particular and the common. As a lover you feel as though you and your beloved are the most intensely particular people in the world—“Never again a love like this,” as Roddy Lumdsen says. But the fact is that you’re submitting yourself to what is possibly the most common or universal human experience, and that sometimes the most direct and most accurate expression of that experience may, in fact, be the language of cliché. I’m thinking about the duet that Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman sing on the rooftop in Moulin Rouge, which is just a pastiche of trashy pop songs, and in some way that’s what all love poetry is leaning toward. But when you think about [it], what is a cliché, if not a poem that won? We feel that so many love poems are bad, or clichéd, but I suspect that what we dislike about them are not the clichés, but the experience of being in love itself. As poets we like to think that we’re original, and it embarrasses us to remember how utterly unoriginal we can be—the sudden appeal of the corniest things, the mood swings, the crying at movies and the like. Let’s face it, nobody in love is original. We all feel and do pretty much the same things, make fools of ourselves in the same ways, and hopefully come through it alive and well and happily in bed with someone else. But that’s also precisely the appeal of love poetry, the intensely humbling nature of the experience it tries to describe.

As a younger poet, did you ever fumble with the bad, saccharine attempts at love poems that most of us write? What can we learn from those fumbles?
It’s hard to say. I came into my writerly existence in the 1980s, the Decade of Irony, when it was very uncool to express any sort of strong feeling directly or plainly. If you wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, you learned to police yourself for any signs of sincerity, to cloak them in irony and diffidence and perhaps a certain obscurity. A while ago, my first lover sent me a copy of a poem I wrote when I was maybe 19, and what strikes me about it now is, though I clearly meant it as a gesture of love, I didn’t frame it as such. Rather than I addressing you, it was all in the third person, a sketch of a character from a noir novel, a sort of Philip Marlowe–like individual smoking underneath a window. It was a stealth love poem, a meta–love poem, a sort of “I have this friend who’s in love with you” kind of poem. The habit of indirection was already very strong in me, as it was with other poets of that era. So I think the danger then was actually not being too saccharine, but rather of being too cool, too frigid. Now the danger is probably being too caffeinated—I’m thinking of the maniacally antic poems of the New New New York School, whatever generation of that we’re on now. So one can fumble by being too cool, and one can fumble by burying the truth of one’s feeling under a heap of jagged and jarring images. I think Creeley, of all people, was able to hit the right note, plain and plaintive and wistful and awkward—what he brings out is the awful hesitancy of that moment where you’re holding out this little offering to somebody else and hoping to hear Yes I said yes I will yes. And what you’re risking is a certain kind of sentimentality. But for my money, I think it’s better to risk the sentimental and fail, than aim for frigidity and succeed.

"Bird-Understander"

Of many reasons I love you here is one

the way you write me from the gate at the airport
so I can tell you everything will be alright

so you can tell me there is a bird
trapped in the terminal all the people
ignoring it because they do not know
what do with it except to leave it alone
until it scares itself to death

it makes you terribly terribly sad

You wish you could take the bird outside
and set it free or (failing that)
call a bird-understander
to come help the bird

All you can do is notice the bird
and feel for the bird and write
to tell me how language feels
impossibly useless

but you are wrong

You are a bird-understander
better than I could ever be
who make so many noises
and call them song

These are your own words
your way of noticing
and saying plainly
of not turning away
from hurt

you have offered them
to me I am only
giving them back

if only I could show you
how very useless
they are not

Craig Arnold’s second book of poems, "Made Flesh (Copper Canyon)", is guaranteed to get you a hot date for Valentine’s Day.

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