For Valentines’ Day this Year…

February 12, 2009

…we will discuss a perennial question: What makes a poem a love poem? What are the qualifications that push your ordinary, quotidian poem into the realm of the romantic? That’s going to be my present this year. Everybody okay here? It’s either that or I buy another Whitman’s Sampler…and you know where that takes us.

“Honey, does this box of chocolates make me look fat?”

So…one, it has to be a poem and, two, it has to have something to do with love (to get the banalities out of the way), and, three, there has to be some further affinity going on, some synergy—or sovereignty—that putting the two together creates. I mean, why do ‘love’ and ‘poetry’ jump each other’s bones?

There are websites devoted to bad love poetry. Here’s an example, pretty much chosen at random


I also agree,

I am falling

in love,


This poem bears the title ‘Adoration, part 3’and is attributed to ‘Liarbyrd’. Butrose is pushed together, suggesting maybe someone’s name—or posterior—and where ‘But, rose, I agree’ would at least have shadowed the apostrophe in William Blake’s great poem, The Sick Rose—‘O Rose, thou art sick…’— there is a weak ‘also’ suggesting, I guess parts 1 and 2. Compared to other very short poems, where powerful imagery prevails, like Pound’s In the Metro Station

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

—‘Adoration, part 3’s’ not even trying. And as to its rhyming agree with continually…well:

Thy smell continually

Is with thee;

Is it the sea—

Or Brie?


When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

There are of course websites with good love poems. This poem is called Sonnet 29…and, no, I am not going to do a compare and contrast with ‘Adoration, part3’: Like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth…

To propose some broad questions we could ask: What is love and why should we think it has something to do with poetry? Or: what is poetry and why should it be thought the perfect vehicle to express love? And: What’s the connection here? Does this particular highly charged emotion have something particular to do with poetry, or is this some wash-back from Romanticism? While there may be poems that express shame or envy, these aren’t genres. ‘So-and-so, he’s quite a master of Pity Poetry. I feel bad for him.’

One can of course express love in prose, but poetry—and its cousin, song—seem to have stolen the candle and it can’t just be because a poem fits nicely on a Hallmark Card.

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.
But I look around me and I see it isn’t so.
Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs.
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know, cause here I go again

That we have a genre ‘love poetry’ suggests that some poetry isn’t about love at all. The idea seems as common as beans—poems express the full range of emotions, right?

As I sd to my

friend, because I am

always talking,-John, I

sd, which was not his

name, the darkness sur-

rounds us, what

can we do against

it, or else, shall we &

why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for

christ’s sake, look

out where yr going.

This is I Know a Man by Robert Creeley. We have to decide all sorts of things here: Is it poem? Is it a love poem? Is it a good poem? And again: is it a poem?

My answers are: Yes, yes, and because I answered ‘yes’ to the second question, yes to the third. To answer the forth question—

Maybe all poetry is love poetry, but maybe you don’t have to mention that word to qualify either, maybe even open declarations are unhelpful—think of Emily Dickenson’s idea to tell all the truth but tell it slant—so maybe we just want to say that love animates all poetry and be done with it, all good poetry anyway and that only good poetry is poetry. Maybe all poets are standing in a field, hat in hand, singing to a dark window with the curtains pulled…in hope the senorita is sitting inside with a secret smile on her face. You think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.

And maybe not. Maybe poetry and love work because of a certain quality of address and attention. We all know when we are being paid attention to. Even when John Milton was explaining the ways of God to men, he was addressing us ‘men’ in a way that Isaac Newton was not. Even when Dante was traveling through his most empyrean circles with Beatrice, he was talking to us in a way that Thomas Aquinas was not. Even when Rilke was calling out to the angels, lamenting their fierce existence, even then he was talking to us too—in a way that, say, Einstein was not. I hope we’re not being rude to truth when we say that poetry seems—truly—not to be hobbled by too much attachment to the truth.

Love does ripple through I Know a Man and Sonnet 29, there’s no question about itand Adoration, part 3? Well, sure. So, yes again.

Happy Valentines Day. Try one of these chocolates. The ones with the silver foil have cream hearts. My real gift this year is Ezra Pound’s The River Merchant’s Wife: a letter. I picked it out especially for you.

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead

I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.

You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,

You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

And we went on living in the village of Chokan:

Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.

I never laughed, being bashful.

Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.

Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,

I desired my dust to be mingled with yours

Forever and forever and forever.

Why should I climb the lookout?

At sixteen you departed,

You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,

And you have been gone five months.

The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.

By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,

Too deep to clear them away!

The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.

The paired butterflies are already yellow with August

Over the grass in the West garden;

They hurt me. I grow older.

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,

Please let me know beforehand,

And I will come out to meet you

As far as Cho-fo-Sa.



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