On Friday, I went to the dentist for a cleaning, and amidst small talk, my dentist found out I’m a grad student in a publishing program.
“Have you ever published anything before?” he said.
“Well, I just had a few poems published in a journal,” I said. “But no, I’ve never published a book.” He stood there nodding his head in silence. He had only worked in the office for a few weeks. He had a habit of milling around, his hands awkwardly clasped at his waist, like he wasn’t quite sure where he belonged yet. The technician finished off the cleaning and told me I could rinse.
“So, what kind of poems?” he finally said. “Romance poems?” I laughed politely, muttered something about writing poetry that reflected life, and tried not to punch something.
I wasn’t angry at him. I was annoyed by the persisting school of thought that says poetry equals sappy love poems about longing and soul mates. That type of sentimentality has always bothered me. It’s Romeo and Juliet. Highschool. Roses are red, violets are blue. I’ll die without you crap that almost never reflects what love actually is.
It happens often. Just the other day, my coblogger Amanda was asked by a male friend to send him some poetry she thought he’d like, but “not romantic stuff,” he clarified. In both these cases, with Amanda and I, I wonder if romance came in to play because, well, we’re women. Love, romance, all of that is often considered feminine. Women are supposed to write about their hearts being crushed—love being all consuming. Men, like Shakespeare, are the ones who get down to the gritty heart of love. They are real. And unforgiving.
But of course, that’s a stereotype. I know it; you know it. The majority of poetry has nothing to do with love. It’s about life. About all the mundane, beautiful moments that pass us by. The simple scene witnessed by a poet is made more real than it was only moments before, because a poet sees the moment in all its depth. They bring emotion and humanity to it.
In reality, Hallmark and Valentine’s Day are probably more to blame for the love poem epidemic than anything else. In an interview for The Poetry Foundation, Jeremy Richards, a poet and journalist, wrote “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 be completely honest, I did write a romance poem. It was one of four selected by the Pomona Valley Review, and you can read it here (if you care to do so).
Now, I realize that makes my little rant seem pretty ridiculous. But to be fair, I originally wrote the poem “Sentimental Love Poem” as an experiment. It was two years ago in a creative writing workshop. I felt like every attempt at a love poem I had made before this was flowery and meaningless. So instead, I focused on images rather than emotion. Images that seemingly had nothing to do with love—freeway overpasses and a dying star. Images that, I hoped, would lead the readers to love rather than shove it in their face.
Was I successful? I suppose that’s up to you, but it’s one of my favorite poems that I’ve written, which explains why I held on to it for so long before attempting to get it published. But read it, and tell me your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.
And if you’re a fan of writing love poems and I’ve completely scared you from ever again putting pen to paper to write that “crap,” as I so eloquently put it, then I am sorry. Really, I truly am, because it’s not that love poems are pointless. It’s not that if you choose to write one you are buying into a commercialized version of poetry. It’s just that love poems are hard to do well, so I tend to avoid them completely.
I could tell you what makes a good love poem, but instead, I prefer to let these poets tell you what makes a bad love poem:
“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
“Taking the poem or yourself too seriously is dangerous. Or they go astray when the author isn’t willing to find the edge. A good love poem lives in a tense state. 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 Cassells
“We feel that so many love poems are bad, or clichéd, but I suspect that what we dislike about them are not the clichés, but the experience of being in love itself. As poets we like to think that we’re original, and it embarrasses us to remember how utterly unoriginal we can be—the sudden appeal of the corniest things, the mood swings, the crying at movies and the like. Let’s face it, nobody in love is original.” – Craig Arnold
And there you have it.