The Trouble with a Love Poem
Ever since that prehistoric man told the woman of his fancy, “Looking at you makes me want to say something where all the words end with the same sound,” then dragged her off to his cave to show her his etchings, many people’s first poetic efforts have been expressions of fondness and desire.
And no matter how bad the poem is, when the feeling is reciprocated, the response is reinforcing. “You wrote me a POEM?! Oh, it’s BEAUTIFUL! That’s so SWEET!” Et cetera, et cetera, with kisses.
At this point, the love poem is perfect. It communicated the desired message, and it had the desired effect. But then, with the beloved’s ecstatic acclamations ringing in his ears, our fledgling poet takes the next logical step in his literary career: he posts the poem on his social media.
Back in the day, when we had to walk 5 miles uphill through the snow to use the internet, young lovers only inflicted such embarrassments on their friends. “Uh, yeah, Zeke. That’s, like, awesome, dude. You wrote a pome. Um, so you wanna go skate?” But Zeke is too besotted to skate; he’s got to go suck face with Bertha, or if she’s busy, go home and write her another pome.
Let’s see. He already told her in poem number 1 that:
a) She’s beautiful,
b) He loves her deeply and truly,
c) He is going to keep on loving her forever,
d) All he wants to do is be with her,
e) He’s never felt like this before,
f) NOBODY has ever felt like this before, and
g) He really, really loves her.
He’d like to put in one more thought, but he’s not sure she’s ready to hear that part of his feelings, and besides, her dad might read it. So he needs to say something different.
Well, different in how he expresses it, at least. The message is still going to be the same, because he doesn’t have any new feelings to express. (He would say he does, because he loves her twice as deeply now as yesterday when he wrote the first poem, but if pressed he’d probably admit that’s not exactly new.)
Were Zeke a typical teenager in love, he’d just rearrange the lines and throw in a bit about how those feelings are becoming too intense to express in words, a sentiment with even odds of getting him at least to second base.
But he’s no longer just a lover, he’s a poet now. And in a fateful moment while he’s waiting for the muse to speak, he opens the fridge, grabs a Coke, and slugs down half the can, since he’s been too busy being in love to eat or drink much of anything the last few hours. And in the ensuing shock of amazement at how refreshing that drink was, the best Coke he’s ever drunk, in fact, he realizes . . .
HOT DAMN!! He’s discovered a METAPHOR! The next poem is completed in 30 minutes flat, full of images of parching thirst and the sweetness of satisfaction. When Bertha reads it and gives him a blank stare, unable to comprehend the connection between endless love and soda pop, he is stunned. When her father reads it — and does comprehend it well enough to ground Bertha for the rest of the month — Zeke is almost relieved.
In fact, he is totally relieved, as are his buddies, who knew they’d lost their skating partner for as long as Bertha had him, as we all should be, because now Zeke will go back to his desk, set love aside (until he finds a woman able to appreciate his poetry), and write about what adolescents know: angst, loneliness, and the pain of being misunderstood.
Grown up Zeke, like romantic poets everywhere, still must struggle with the problem of what to say about love. Once you’ve named your feeling and described how strongly you are feeling it, what’s left to build a poem around?
To the mature poet who is also a mature lover, that problem is a wonderful one, because life provides more answers than we’ll ever find the time to write. Metaphors are only the beginning — there are also countless vignettes that illustrate some subtle aspect of the feelings and/or the relationship. The beloved as an individual becomes the subject of the muse’s scrutiny, and the best love poetry is often a description of some lovable idiosyncrasy that only a true lover could appreciate. (Think of When Harry Met Sally and Billy Crystal’s speech to Meg Ryan that begins, “I love the way it takes you forty-five minutes to order a sandwich.”)
Poetry, like all the arts, reflects the truths of life. Part of the joy of loving, to me, is the search for new ways to express not only how I feel about my one and only, but also how my love arises from awareness of her uniqueness, how that love inspires me to be better, how much I cherish every hour we share, how many ways her presence has enriched my life, and on and on. (The way I score the “I love you” game, I get an extra point for statements that don’t involve the word “love,” two for saying it without words, and four for any act of love she’ll never know I did. Best game ever: only way to lose is not to play.)
To write a great love poem, one the reading public can appreciate, you must know enough about the art of loving — and about the art of living — to have something fresh to say.