Hate Poem: The Story Behind the Hate

By Julie Sheehan on 2.10.10

Okay, false advertising. This is not the story behind the hate—there is no story behind the hate, or if there is, I’m not telling. Instead, I have an observation, one that has probably occurred to many: hate and love can be described in the same, outlandish, hyperbolic and indistinguishable terms, probably because hate and love require the same degree of passionate intensity. Don’t say Yeats didn’t warn us, but it may be that hate and love are the same thing. Surely both are equally capable of mass destruction.

Weirdly enough, when we’re talking about language, not people, hate redeems love. Hate poetry, I mean, redeems love poetry. Take those sagging lyrics from “I Love You Truly” and substitute the word hate for love.

That’s what I did for the first lines of this poem:

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Voilá! New life! Like the line, “life with its sorrow, life with its tear / Fades into dreams when I feel you are near,” all clichés were once powerful, magically powerful, turns of phrase. They got at something so perfectly, they were doomed to overuse. All writers know this, because each of us has, in the fury of the moment, believed we’ve found the exact and singular expression of a heightened emotional reality (“I am a real poet,” we’re thinking), only to wake up the next day and see that what we’ve “found” is a line like “life with its sorrow, life with its tear…” Mostly, we cross that stuff out. With “Hate Poem,” I got to keep it. I got away with the literary equivalent of manslaughter: cliché. [More crimes against language.]


Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.

The other operational observation for this poem is that hate demands of its bearer the same scrutinizing myopia as of the lover. Hence, the list seemed the perfect form, the more exhaustive, the better. Also, I found that the delight we take from inspecting each minute feature of the self in love and the beloved can be derived in equal measure from the self in hate and the be-hated. Therefore, the list could be a gleeful one. But all list poems present the same problem: how do you know when you’re done? You can’t go on forever, even if the list certainly can. Luckily, that final image of idealism as a pair of lungs came to me as I sat down to write. I thought it was for another poem, and so I scribbled it in the margin (“Idealism=lungs”). But as I wrote, those lungs pointed out to me that they, like lovers and haters, come in pairs. Then they relocated to the broken submarine of the body, where their idealism would be tested, and settled into the ending, a felicity for which I can take no credit, as it was a visitation, not an act of writing.

Over the years since 2005, many students have contacted me because they are reciting or writing about this poem, which gives me great hope that the era of assigning snowflake haiku is over. High school students in particular make no bones (cliché) about what they want to know: Who is the bastard? Reader, I invite you to plug in your own nominee, but be careful. If hate and love are so interchangeable in their written expression, then who’s to say they’re not interchangeable in real life? It may be that first in line for your hate poem is the one you love.

topics: Columnists / Behind the Poem