Not Your Great-Grandma’s Love Poem
There are plenty of wonderful love poems—new and old—in the world, but boy are they hard to write. When I come across one that really works, I admire the poet’s heart and skill. What do I mean by “really works?” For me, it’s a poem that avoids cliché and stops short of sentimentality but still conveys deep emotion. If it contains some humor while making me well-up with tears at least a bit, then it gets extra points. I want to really see the beloved and their relationship to the poet. Specific details are one of the best tools in the love-poem toolkit.
I just finished reading Sugar Fix, a poetry collection by Kory Wells. While I dogeared many favorites, the following poem inspired me to write this post.
With a Thousand-Tongued Hunger
Sunset at our campsite, and you kneel,
faith healer to feeble embers of fire.
Through damp wood your breath rises
a small miracle of enough—
flame to cook our supper,
light to stave the darkness,
heat to warm our hands.
But our backs chill.
This reminds us of happiness—
one turn, the warmth gone.
How often is the forecast wrong?
Clearing skies portend colder ground
beneath our tent tonight. For all we plan,
life’s more paradox than perfection.
You tell me it’s possible to hold
at once great sorrow and joy,
that one does not cancel the other
on some cosmic ledger of accounts.
In the balance of time I may never
move as easily as you,
ahead on the overgrown path.
But I savor all you notice,
the names you know:
trillium, warbler, brim.
You soothe-talk a small fish
as you unhook and toss him back
to his shining home. For this I want to rise
to my feet and clap. Why not
honor compassion with ovation?
Why not too often say love?
At the choppy lakeshore,
water gulps stones. This this this.
We know that desire, that frenzy,
but today we sun on a slab of stone,
lizards blinking. The sinkhole behind us
could yawn wider anytime. We study
a rock under the water’s surface.
Flat as a palm, marked by a lifeline
some might call jagged. We wade out
ankle-deep, a kind of blessing.
—Kory Wells from Sugar Fix, (Terrapin Books, 2019)
What do I love about this poem? Though it uses the word love in the penultimate stanza, we already see the narrator of the poem loving this person. Kory tells me I guessed right when I guessed this was about her husband (though we can’t always assume a poem is autobiographical nor about the person we think it’s about). The story of the poem and its short anecdotes illustrate what kind of person the beloved is. We see how much and why the poet admires that person. He (in this case) seems quite worthy of love. We can understand why the poet loves him. Heck, we love him because of what we learn.
The devil isn’t in the details; the love is! Here are a few examples:
- The use of “faith healer” (line 2).
- His breath “a small miracle of enough” (first stanza). The “of enough” keeps the word “miracle” from being cliché.
- The poet savors all the beloved notices and names: “trillium, warbler, brim,” (stanza 3).
- And then his “soothe-talk” to the fish he releases (stanza 4) which escalates the poet’s love and the move to the sweet quiet ending.
- Hints of difficult realities—the sinkhole, the jagged lifeline (last stanza)—de-sentimentize (maybe I just made up that word?) so that this great love seems even more real to us. (Also see stanza 2).
Because Sugar Fix is just one of the many admirable books published by Terrapin Books, it feels right to put in a recommendation for this small poetry press and its editor, Diane Lockward, who also published my second book No Such Thing as Distance. She does a careful job of editing, producing, and promoting her poets’ books. Terrapin has an upcoming open call for full-length manuscripts August 1-31, 2022. Guidelines are available here.
For another taste of Terrapin poets, here’s a video of four of us (including Kory Wells and me) reading for eight minutes each. We also participate in a fun a Q&A.
Your Turn: All Kinds of Love Poems
Love poems can be about parents, children, friends, and pets (or, yes, even your great grandma!). If you want a big challenge, try writing a poem (that isn’t sappy) about your dog or cat or infant child. Issue 15 of Eastern Iowa Review features love prose poems, offering some good examples of other approaches to the subject. Or, if you’ve read a love poem you liked, please link to it or post it in the comments.
Have you written a love poem or have you read one lately that especially touched you? Please link to it
(Note, if you plan on submitting your unpublished poem to a journal, please be advised it will be considered previously published if you post it here. Publications like Every Day Poems, however, gladly welcome previously published work! A good poem is a good poem, after all. Worthy of being experienced again.)