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How to Write a Love Poem: Stephen Burt

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Eleven Questions And Something Like Ten Suggestions

If you take care of the poetry, will the love take care of itself?

Does it matter what kind of love you mean, or what kind of love you want?

What’s the difference—in terms of literary portrayals; in terms of how they are realized in language—between erotic love, on the one hand, and all the other kinds of things we are used to designating as love, on the other?

What—if anything—do you want to encode, so that the poem contains something that only your lover, or your beloved, will understand?

“Does the imagination dwell the most/ Upon a woman won or a woman lost?” (W. B. Yeats) “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?” (John Keats)

Can a love poem get outside—all the way outside—the ways of thinking in which the beloved is pursued, and “won” or “lost,” like a deer in a hunt or a prize on a game show?

Is love a third thing, something that belongs to neither of you, something that exists between you and gets addressed the way that a story or an orange or an idea can get addressed? Or are you writing to, for, and about, a person?

Are you writing a poem for yourself, or for a particular person you can name (see Frank O’Hara, “Personism”), or for a set of real people, or for everyone, or for no one, or for strangers?

Are you writing a poem as a gift, or as a plea, or as a means of reconciliation, or as a kind of announcement, a cry of happiness (as in O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You”)?

Do you want other people to see themselves in your poem, or it is just about your beloved and you? (Or do you have more than one beloved?)

Can you write a poem for a beloved without deciding, and without ever knowing, how you would answer any of those questions, so that the only good answer turns out to be the completion of the poem?

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Pick another poem—not necessarily a love poem—and imitate it as you write your love poem, so that the new poem you write has a secret substructure apparent only to the people—or the person—with whom you share this secret about its formation.

Pick a text that is not a poem—the letter from the end of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, for example—and do the same thing.

Pick an object that is not a text—a really cool bracelet, perhaps, or a slice of boysenberry pie—and do the same thing. If possible, give the object to the beloved (unless it is something the beloved already owns).

Make your poem into a theme and variation: write the first poem, cut it up, write lines to go between the lines, go back to the first poem, put the lines in reverse order, edit the results until they make sense, go back to the first poem, insert the beloved’s name or a homonym for that name into every line or sentence, edit the results until they make sense, go back to the first poem, cut out every third word, edit, etc.

At the end of this exercise you will have a kind of musical offering: something that took work, that can be offered as a festive homage, wrapped up, delivered with a big to-do.

Do exactly the opposite of the exercise above: write a poem addressed to your beloved that sounds as casual, as ephemeral, as a real note written on the way somewhere else, so that the poem shows how you are always thinking about the beloved, even when you are doing something else.

Recognize how much disappointment, sadness, irony, and frustration are built into even the happiest, most fortunate lives, and then decide how much, and how, or whether, you want to exclude them from your poems. (I recommend Shakespeare’s sonnet 116; is the end for real?)

Impersonate; take a dramatic risk! write a love poem from a position, a stance, a way of falling in love, a sexuality, or a life position that isn’t yours—a poem about love in old age if you are young, about youth if you see yourself as mature; a poem to a man if you fall in love only with women, or the other way around; a poem about a fetish you do not have (one that does not in fact turn you on); a poem about a hookup or a one-night stand if you don’t have them or haven’t had them lately; a poem about long-term fidelity, if you are open or poly or unattached; a poem about playing around, if you are paired up. Use the name of an invented character as the title for the poem. (I recommend “Fra Lippo Lippi,” by Robert Browning.) And then go back and see what the poem has told you about what you want from the rest of your poetry, and about what you want—or don’t want, or want only in imagination—from the rest of your life.

Notice how often we are asked to assume that love means erotic love; that erotic love should lead to sex; that sex consists in certain acts that are especially hard to describe in literature; that love and sex, together, should lead to pairing up, and pairing up to marriage; that most people are either gay or straight; that if you are neither gay or straight there is some other label (e.g. “bi”) that defines you adequately in terms of who you love; that almost all people are either men or women; that if you are neither, or both, there is some other label that defines you adequately; that all these fields of life are different in kind (not only in degree) from such other forms of affection, excitement and loyalty as playing together in a band or on a team, and from such other kinds of identity as being Irish, or being a metalhead.

Those assumptions are not necessarily wrong—they are good descriptions of many people’s lives, and many of them are not bad as descriptions of mine. But we should recognize them as assumptions. (I recommend Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s introduction to her book Tendencies, which is not a book of poems.)

Figure out what part of your own love life hasn’t been represented adequately in the poetry that you have read. Then represent it.

Find a love poem that speaks to you, a poem that perhaps few other people have read so far, and try to explain to yourself why you like it; then let that explanation guide your next poem. (I recommend “Nest,” by Sarah Pemberton Strong.)

Remake the most traditional, and the least traditional, love poems you can find; figure out what they might share. (I recommend Michele Leggot’s “snake & jewel”: http://jacketmagazine.com/03/leggott03.html)

Do exactly the opposite—in your poem, not in your life—of everything that you’ve been told.

Belmont (2013, Graywolf Press) is Stephen Burt’s third collection of poetry, following Parallel Play (2006) and Popular Music Poems (1999). Burt has also published several books of nonfiction including Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009). His criticism has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the Believer, the Boston Review, and as part of the Songs from Scratch experiment at Minnesota Public Radio. He currently teaches in the English Department at Harvard University and lives in the Boston area.