How To Write Love Poems That Don't Suck
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.
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.
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.