Though most Americans aren’t regular readers of poems, few have never written one. And chances are that when they did, their subject was love. Who can resist a summertime letter from a distant love, a young man wooing his beloved with honeyed lines or the spouse’s affirmations of lifelong devotion?
Each love poem is written to achieve a goal—acquiring love, renewing it, begging for forgiveness for that Christmas party peccadillo—and the better the poem, the more likely its desired effect. After all, July is the honeymoon month after the many June weddings; we can all make that feeling last.
But how to write a love poem good enough to elicit the desired smile or second chance? First, you’ll need to be able to identify what separates a good love poem from the treacle on your teens’ iPods. Poet Lisa Russ Spaar (Col ’78, Grad ’82) looks for “an act of fresh language that avoids clichés and constellates around a central tension and has something at stake—that is, language shapely rather than merely rambling—with something that stirs the reader with emotion, vision, surprise: that’s a love poem.”
The poem’s subject needn’t be new, but its language must. A handy litmus test is to imagine the love poem you’ve written printed in elaborate French script over an embossed heart or rose on lavender-scented stationery. If the poem would be utterly ruined by such a presentation, it’s a keeper. If it is not ruined by such a presentation, email the Hallmark people: you have a second career.
You needn’t be wracked with longing, lust, ecstasy or regret—or even have ever been in love at all—to write beautifully of love. Spaar references the 19th-century French poet Paul Valéry, who observed, “a poet’s function ... is not to experience the poetic state [but] to create it in others.”
Indeed, many of the world’s great love poems, for instance, certain Elizabethan sonnets or songs written for ancient Chinese courtesans, were authored by poets writing from stock poses—the unrequited, jealous or bereaved lovers—about loves, and sometimes genders, of which they had no experience. Such poems can move readers as strongly as those written in the throes of authentic misery or joy. In either case, the poem should offer some unique perspective, insight or articulation.
Considering the innumerable transcendent love poems already written, you might fear that it’s all been done before. Spaar assures that it hasn’t. She says that it is “absolutely possible” to break new ground in love poetry and that “renewing love through language and vice versa is one of the reasons we keep writing and reading—and needing—poetry.”
A Few Good Lines
If you need a little inspiration, the work of professors Lisa Russ Spaar and Paul Guest provides some good examples of what a beautiful line of love poetry looks like.
from “Adagio” by Lisa Russ Spaar:
I know what I love most I can’t possess.
What owns me more: the river, on its deep and endless junket,
or the luster of your gaze that lingers there?
These lines evoke the longing to have what we cannot have—a person, a certainty, an instant—and how that absence can come to possess us.
from “Valentine” by Lisa Russ Spaar:
[…] while elsewhere
shackles melt to seawater
and the thorns surrounding us take wing
into illuminated, full-leafed story
of once, of ever after.
Here, Spaar refashions familiar, fairy tale language and imagery to describe the bliss of union with the beloved, a process that is both transformative and liberating.
from “In Praise of the Defective” by Paul Guest:
What will I do with my days
now that my nights
are sublimely alone
and how will I make use of this wound
I carried like a map
so that I would never, never
In this excerpt, Guest describes the despair of one who has lost his beloved. The interrogatives emphasize the bewilderment and helplessness of the poem’s speaker, defeated by the loss.
from “Water” by Paul Guest:
But know when we stood on one side
of thick glass to watch
a world of water ignore our entire lives,
I kissed your fingers
and each one in that light was blue.
In this poem, a couple visits an aquarium. These lines perform one of the simplest, but most fundamental, functions of love poetry: to record vanished moments and thereby make them last.
Six Love Poems
As editor of an edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry and UVA English professor, R. Jahan Ramazani (Col ’81) may have read more poems than anyone you’ve ever met. We asked him to recommend a few of his favorite love poems from his expansive reading.
“Here’s a handful of love poems, mainly from the 20th century,” says Ramazani. “Two others for which there is no legal or stable Web posting but that readers may wish to look up are Mina Loy’s ‘Love Songs’ and Jean Toomer’s ‘Her Lips Are Copper Wire.’”
Listen to this: