The Hermit Poet

February 13, 2007

The Love Poem: Some Initial Notes

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:40 am

(from a handout I developed for an undergraduate class)

Not Another Love Poem
Why are there so many bad love poems out there? What makes writing about love such a challenge? Well, that truth is that far too many love poems are born out of superficial infatuation and not enough arise out of obsession. Strange as it may seem, obsession is actually at the heart of writing good poetry (although it usually leads to really bad and/or dysfunctional relationships). We have to obsess over details – being general or abstract will not do.

Ted Kooser notes in his excellent book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual:

“To write a poem that is not just a gush of sentiment but something that will engender in its readers deep, resonant feelings, you need to exercise restraint to avoid what is commonly termed sentimentality”

What is sentimentality and why is it bad?
Sentimentality might be defined as anything that strikes you as obvious, gushy, or overly touchy-feely. Poems become sentimental when they deal primarily in generalizations and broad statements, when they make cliché or obvious moves, when they seem to expend an excess of emotion on an object.

A sentimental poem is generally a lazy poem. That is to say, rather than construct a new image or metaphor, the poem slides into the expected and conventional. It says what we already know about the subject. Or it seems preoccupied with “telling” us what and how we should feel rather than trusting us as intelligent readers to arrive at the emotion ourselves.

Emotion is vital – but to suddenly reveal an emotion in its entirety turns us away rather than pulls us in. Why should we care if the object or the idea of the poem can be so easily expressed?

The Poem as Strip Tease
When writing about love (or writing about anything else in fact), the poet should approach the subject as if the central emotion of the poem were something buried beneath multiple layers of images or words. Why? Because we are more intrigued by mystery and anticipation than by the actual object itself.

The trick to making a compelling poem is to reveal it slowly, carefully, and methodically. To have the poem arrive on the page completely naked makes for an uninteresting experience. If from the very beginning everything is known or easily deduced, where is the adventure or journey in the poem? On the other hand, if the poem appears clothed in attractive attire that is set aside line after line until the bare truth of the moment is finally revealed, then we as readers are more completely enthralled. We know that there will be a moment of final revelation – and so we anticipate it. We know that each line is functional and will bring us closer to that moment. And when that moment of revelation comes – that epiphany or turn is fully earned – we have become emotionally invested because of the restraint shown.

Avoid Clichés
When we use cliché or overused images and phrases in our poem, we cheapen the object of our attention. It is like our poem has shown up were the same gray sweatshirt that everyone else is wearing. Within minutes of meeting our poem, our reader will forget it. By this point in the history of poetry, we should expect that roses, hearts, souls, and angels have been used to death when talking about love. Make your poem as unique and individual as the object of your affection. Don’t write poems that are so generic you could give them to anyone. Or worse, that anyone could give to anyone else. Remember this is you and your language – say it in the way that only you can say it. See the world with your own eyes.

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