Ack, those love poems!

Neruda Valentine available to print or e-mail from The Academy of American Poets

Finally, after an intense January of poetry judging and article writing, back to blogging! And what more appropriate topic than love poems, with Valentine’s Day upon us.

The Poetry Foundation has an excellent online piece, How to Write Love Poems by Jeremy Richards, in which poets Adrian Blevins, Rebecca Hoogs, Cyrus Cassells, and Craig Arnold offer their perspectives on creating love poems, including the pitfalls and cliches of love poetry. Here are quotes that I think are worth sharing:

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. — Adrian Blevins

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. — Rebecca Hoogs

Bad love poems usually go into gauzy “soft focus,” ignore revealing details, and refuse to accurately and specifically portray real intimacy or the Beloved. — Cyrus Cassels

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. — Craig Arnold

All of these quotes rang especially true for me in the aftermath of judging thousands of poems, with a large percentage of love poems poorly written. I have nothing against poets writing verse to their cherished ones in the most saccharine language imaginable. It’s between the poet and the object of his or her affection, and maybe that object responds to gushy,  cloying verse, particularly if there’s a strong undercurrent of sincerity to the same old-same old hearts and flowers images.

What does bug me is when those same poets enter those poems in contests or submit them for publication. I assume the more inexperienced poet thinks winning a prize for his or her poetic tribute is an enhanced, even immortalized salute to the beloved. Fine and good, but remember, whether you’ve entered a contest or submitted for publication, your poem is in competition. It is being judged against the work of others. That means it had better aim for a certain level of artistic merit, and the justification for writing something cliche-ridden and gushy vanishes.

Most of the love poem entries I judged were bad by greeting card standards; and, yes, as a former greeting card writer, I can assure you there ARE standards, even though many are commercial considerations. Many entries suffered from the “gauzy” soft focus ailment Cassels notes in the quote above; revealing details and lack of intimacy mark such poems as pre-fab assemblages of details drawn from the lamentable catalog of love poem cliches.

On the other side, the love-gone-wrong poems were just as bad—usually more passionate than the sugary verses, but also relying on almost standardized language, this time of the aggrieved. Furthermore, the poet usually was so enraged or so wronged, the resulting poem often came out sounding like a hysterical message left on someone’s answering machine. Usually, the overall message was the same: I gave you my heart! You laughed as you crushed it. I hope you die! Read enough variations of that same message and it’s hard to empathize with the speaker’s anguish. Which is sad in itself.

If you want to write a love poem for someone this Valentine’s Day or anytime, I say go for it. Don’t sweat the cliches and the goo if that’s how you really feel. Ultimately, though, keep it between the two of you.

If you want to write a love poem for an audience of more than one, though, you’re going to have to do better. Read the “How to Write Love Poems” article. Then read a variety of good love poems; The Poetry Foundation offers quite a collection, broken down by categories (“Teen Love,” “Break Up,” “Erotic,” for example). On the same page are links to several additional articles on love poems. The Academy of American Poets also offers an extensive resource on love poems, from  flower poems to pair with bouquets to poetry Valentines you can e-mail or print and distribute. Pay attention to the quotes on these Valentines (the train image above is a Neruda Valentine) and notice the distinctive ways skilled poets express their love. When you’ve absorbed these lessons and influences, try again to write a love poem that includes “revealing details,” is honest, and expresses your feelings without the cut-and-paste images and tired language.

You might also like:

Thoughts on Love Poems

Bad Valentine Flashback

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