On Love Poems (and Other One-Horned Beasts)

By Sandra Beasley on 2.11.10

I’ve been writing love poems.

Or rather, I’ve been trying to write love poems.

To be precise, I’ve been cursing the blank page where my love poems should be. I’m in love, damn it. Where are the poems? When I’m sad, I can write about sadness. When I took a cable car up Mount Pilatus, I could describe the view from 7,000 feet.

It’s not uncommon for a lover to ask, “why aren’t I in your poems?” Usually the poet thinks, “You don’t want that. Showing up in poems is a bad sign.” There is a truism that poems do not thrive on the agar of contentment. No, that’s not quite it; great poems do not thrive on the agar of contentment. Mediocrity flourishes in any petri dish. William Butler Yeats, in “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” diagnosed the problem. “Only an aching heart,” he said, “Conceives a changeless work of art.”

You’d think the ratio of poems about love affirmed, versus love lost, would be similar to the ratio of happy marriages to failed relationships. But look through any sampling of literary journals, and you’ll realize that genuinely joyous “love poems” are like unicorns. They’re extremely rare; they come to people seen as preternaturally faithful or naïve; and afterwards, someone points at what’s left behind and says, “Well, looks like plain old horse manure to me.”

Poets resist celebrating love in poems. Perhaps it seems boastful, or trite; the practitioner in us trumps the romantic. So what do we do instead? We complicate love. We challenge it. In Eavon Boland‘s sequence, “Quarantine,” (from Against Love Poetry) an Irish couple’s devotion is pitched against the winter of 1847: “In the morning they were both found dead. / Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history. / But her feet were held against his breastbone. / The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.” In an interview with the journal Caffeine Destiny, Boland spoke of this (true) anecdote as “a dark love story, and an exemplary one…All the things I wanted to get at—the stoicism of dailyness, the failure of conventional love poetry—all came together there.”

In Louise Glück‘s “Purple Bathing Suit,” the famine is of a different sort, as the banalities of suburban life whittle away at the impulse to cherish. Looking at his wife in a swimsuit, a husband sees that “You are a small irritating purple thing / and I would like to see you walk off the face of the earth / because you are all that’s wrong with my life / and I need you and I claim you.” His love, perversely, can be acknowledged only in tandem to his frustration (and their eventual divorce). Love is one thing; happiness is another.

Sometimes, instead of challenging love, we sublimate it. In Peter Pereira‘s poem, “A Pot of Red Lentils,” the lovers engage in carrying, planting, and cooking, verbs of noble if oddly chaste service. It’s the legumes that have the fun, as “All afternoon dense kernels / surrender to the fertile / juices, their tender bellies / swelling with delight.”

Science also provides vehicles for love, as in Jason Schneiderman‘s poem “Sublimation Point,” which suggests the first meeting with a beloved shifts the speaker’s molecular structure, “straight to a new state without passing / through expected ones—as though enough / of me left at the moment you appeared that / I could never be whole without you.” The speaker is not unlike dry ice. “Apply heat,” he invites, and “I turn straight into ether.”

Poets invoke equations and recipes as traction against the slippery slope of sentimentality. But sometimes, nothing but sentiment will do. What then? Then we camouflage love poems in dense syntax or experimental forms. “Show, don’t tell,” we instruct students, but e.e. cummings is all about the bold, bald telling. That is not to say his poems are simple. “[S]omewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond / any experience,your eyes have their silence,” he swears, and “in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, / or which i cannot touch because they are too near.” Who’s the who? When’s the when? Where is the context we’re always demanding in workshop? No matter. We are too busy parsing out those claustrophobic, yet sensual commas.

A reader can spend the first half of Olena Kalytiak Davis‘s “sweet reader, flannelled and tulled,” trying to figure out what the hell is going on. “Reader unseduc’d / and unterrified, through the long-loud and the sweet-still / I creep toward you,” declares the speaker—at once seductive and terrifying, despite what she says to the contrary. “Toward you, I thistle and I climb.” We just got here; why are we leaving? Who is this Italian mistress with “her dark hair, and her moon-lit / teeth”? What is her “leopardi,” much less her “cavalcanti,” and why can we not resist them?

“Reader, I will never forgive you,” we are told, “but not, poor / cock-sure Reader, not, for what you think.”

Only in the endgame does Davis’s speaker confess “I had been secretly hoping this would turn into a love / poem.” We cling to this sentence not because of its craft (it sounds a little like an Elton John song) but because of its clarity. And this is a love poem, of course; “I have cleared this space for you, for you, for you,” she promises. But we must play along that it isn’t one, or risk humiliating the speaker by illuminating her vulnerability. Love, it seems, is a flame that cannot be caged by palm, nor lamp, nor poem—its air supply would run out. Love is wildfire or bust, and Davis’s language runs rampant to suit.

In The Last Unicorn, a book by Peter S. Beagle (later made into an animated movie), for a time the unicorn submits to being on display in Mommy Fortuna’s travelling carnival. One of Fortuna’s henchmen affixes a gaudy horn alongside the unicorn’s actual one. Humans refuse to see the real thing, she is told. Their eyes need to see a plain mare with a fake appendage, even as their hearts recognize the unicorn.

I am not arguing against these ways of writing about love; these are great poems. I am only pointing out that when we showcase love in its futility, or hide lust in a menu, or bury devotion in grammar, we are gluing a horn on the unicorn. Our jaded eyes insist that “real” love is shaded in compromise. But my blank page is waiting, and my heart reaches for an older truth. Because there is love in this world: earned, fought for, fallen into, given away. Call me conventional, or sappy, but I believe that for precious seconds at a time there is pure, happy, human love in this world.

How strange that we are so bad at capturing this in our poems—and, worse yet, so afraid to try.

topics: Columnists


deborah ager said on 2.11.10 at 10:09pm:

Shakespeare wrote one of my favorite love poems: “I grant I never saw a goddess go;/
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:/
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/
As any she belied with false compare.” He escapes the easy cliche, of course, and discusses the more repulsive aspects of his lover with a comic result.

I’d say Yeats had it about right. It’s easier to write a poem of lost love rather than happy love. It’s easier to write about death and destruction rather than the beauty of a flower. Cheers, Deborah

Dylan Shakespeare said on 2.12.10 at 12:27pm:

I say this: if sincere love poetry is so rare and so hard, then it is this very unicorn that poets should verily strive to master!

Jessie Carty said on 2.12.10 at 4:03pm:

Happiness is so much harder to write, or at least it is for me, and especially to write something well without cliche. Too many love poems, perhaps, were written in the past? How do we make it new?

James Elrod said on 2.13.10 at 1:56pm:

I also believe in those “precious seconds.” Thanks for this.

Catherine Daly said on 2.23.10 at 2:20pm:

I don’t agree. Almost everything I write is a love poem in some way; I think, too, that more academics in the humanities are actually reading and writing about passion, love, and sex than not.

WCW, Zukofsky?