Should I compare you to a frozen food aisle? How To Write A Love Poem In 2022 | Poetry
OWhat are poets talking about when they talk about love? The first poem I wrote was a love poem. I was 14 years old. I don’t remember any of the lines, but I do remember them expressing an unhealthy, naive, messy soup of feelings. It was obsessive, devotional, incantatory – all those things that are part of romantic love. His emotions were excessive, his imagery floral and baroque. Most likely, the recipient’s hair color was compared to something in nature, and their complexion to a rose. The recipient was someone specific, whom I was convinced to be in love with. It would be embarrassing to admit – or at least more embarrassing – if it weren’t so commonplace. But writing love poems is one of the great human pastimes. They are central to the so-called canons of world literature. They have been around as long as love itself, since there has been a language to describe love. Didn’t you write one at some point?
My first love poem was addressed to someone, a “you”. More importantly, it was said through an “I”. It was expressing feelings or emotions from a personal point of view – it was a lyrical poem. These have their origins in antiquity and continue unabated today. Sappho around 600 BC. J.-C.: “You came and I was crazy about you / and you cooled my spirit which was burning with nostalgia.” Lil Nas X in 2021: “Call me by your name / Tell me you love me privately / Call me by your name / I don’t care if you lie.”
What poets talk about when they talk about love has little to do with “you” and almost everything to do with “I”; with the fantasies that the speaker of the poem has created and dangerously, passionately projected onto the loved one. Lil Nas X freely admits that he doesn’t care much about his beloved’s subjectivity – he cares about his personal fantasy of possessing or being possessed by the beloved. Poet Anne Carson sums it up in Eros the Bittersweet: “The people we love are never what we want them to be. The two symbols never match perfectly. Eros is between the two.
Eros is the poetic fuel of rockets, the electric current that surges and animates so much love poetry. She transforms this lyrical “I” into an axis around which gravitate all the erratic and incoherent feelings of love: pleasure and pain, adoration and contempt, devotion and hatred. Carson explains that Eros is the to reach of desire, and that this “implies every lover in an activity of the imagination”. The mid-century American poet Jack Spicer, whose work has recently experienced a renaissance, understood this well. His own Love Poems conclude: “Eros / Do that. / I give you my imaginary hand and you give me your imaginary hand and we walk / together (in imagination) on the earthly ground.
Eros also depends entirely on lack. To really attain the beloved is to quench desire, “to cool the mind” as Sappho puts it. Maybe it’s to put an end to the love poem. Rachel Long sums it up perfectly in Thanksgiving, from her debut collection. To make her lover’s desire run, the speaker understands that she must maintain an illusion of lack: “I will be so light / on his life that he will not realize it / he has kept me”. Conversely, losing or letting go of the loved one is to rush once again into Eros, a return where the pain redoubles. As Sharon Olds says, “I let him go, lay back and lay on love’s goddamn stretcher.”
When I was 20 and still writing bad love poems, I discovered Richard Siken’s 2005 collection Crush.. It was actually lent to me by a “crush” of my own. Siken’s poems, as the title suggests, are intoxicating and luscious, pulverizing and overwhelming: “Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us. After returning the book to its owner, I sought out Crush in bookstores, re-reading the poems but never buying it. I always do that. It’s as if the book itself had taken on the characteristics of the loved one, in my imagination. Reaching it might extinguish the charge the poems hold for me, might extinguish the memory of how and why I came to read them.
What my crush and I loved about Crush, and why it remains a touchstone for today’s generation of romance poets, is that the emotions expressed by Siken are so impactful, so urgent. He writes how love and desire really feel. This is what we demand of a poet of love. We charge them to make love legible, to articulate the quicksilver of desire in a way that illuminates our own. And because what we feel is real or authentic, the love poem must also be real and authentic.
But a poem is not an unfiltered explosion of feelings. It’s worked with care: it’s a performance. The lyrical ‘I’ is a selective and constructed ‘I’ – the personality of the poet, offering what Olds called the ‘seemingly personal’. Like Vaseline smeared on a camera lens, this lyrical “I” casts an eerie aura over the poem, turning real life into daydreaming. In other words, we could think of the lyrical “I” as a costume that the poet wears when performing the poem. The task of the love poem is to interpret well enough, authentically enough, that the reader does not dismiss their interpretation as shoddy artifice, but rather allows them to work their magic on them.
Is it possible for a poet of love today? As readers, we have our hackles up. Our current cultural moment is characterized by quackery. Truth and lies have become nonsense words, rendering the meaning of “reality” itself unstable. Moreover, the very language of love – of any emotion, for that matter – risks being devalued by the forces of advertising and consumerism. I’m not talking about the Hallmark pat-ification of love, or the consumerist excess of Valentine’s Day; I mean the deleterious and metamorphosed tactics by which late-stage capitalism robs love and other emotions of all meaning.
Today, love is fungible: it’s McDonald’s and Cartier, and the heart-shaped button we press on Twitter to feed the algorithm data, spawning targeted ads. Companies swear to “love us”, their customers; they swear to “care” about our struggles – provided we keep buying. And that’s not to mention the eros that lubricates the machine of capitalism itself, deployed to generate desire in the consumer. In this new ground, can love be anything real at all?
Frank O’Hara’s carefree, off-hand poetry remains hugely popular today, eclipsing many of his New York School contemporaries. A video of O’Hara reading his most famous love poem, Have a Coke With You, has racked up more than half a million views on YouTube. It’s typical of O’Hara’s love poems, which are conversational, laid-back, and peppered with brand names and references to icons of American consumerism. As a poet, O’Hara was aware of the emerging confluence of affect and publicity, personal and product.
Although his poems reflect an era of less steroid use than our own, and thus feel comfortably nostalgic or watery-eyed, they suggest a solution to the poet’s love bond today. If love is stripped bare by the forces of capitalism, perhaps the task of the poet today is to integrate the language of capitalism into a new metaphor of love. “I crank out heaps of love / like an old spaghetti machine / crank out spaghetti / baby, it’s hard work,” Emily Berry wrote in The Old Fuel, brilliantly channeling love, undiminished, through a metaphor in which affection is production, and production is work.
Maged Zaher, one of my favorite contemporary poets, takes these concerns to a formal level. Her poems are set in a mobile world of offices, lunch hours and emails. In a poem by Zaher, the syntactic and conceptual meaning of an individual line is often undone by having no coherent relationship to a following line. “Love in the frozen veggie aisle / security forces lap-dance,” a poem begins. This technique reflects the decadence of language, the absurdity of corporate language and political jargon, and the distracted and restless exhaustion of life under a neoliberal economy. Love is invoked repeatedly in Zaher’s poems, but he lets it vacillate between the possibilities of redemption and failure, sincerity and irony: “And if you just ate an overpriced burger / C It’s love that will ultimately make the difference.” In doing so, he creates an ambivalent iteration of the contemporary love poem where the reader is forced – or freed – to decide for themselves whether love still has meaning or not.
When I wonder what poets are talking about when they talk about love – when I write my own love poems today – the lyrical “I”, Eros and the twisted language games of advanced capitalism come to mind. ‘spirit. Well, they’re in the flea market in the back of my head. The love poem of my 14-year-old self still resonates in there too, saccharine and rose. There is something nurturing, or tenacious, in the memory of her adolescent ardor – something, perhaps, that militates for a fundamental unassailability of the heart of love.