Before we get onto the poetry let's start with the love. I hate love. I hate lots of words but whenever I need to think of an example 'love' always finds its way to the head of the queue. Regular readers may find this next bit familiar but bear with me; it's a rant I need to have every now and then. Really my gripe is with the entire English language. I would probably have similar gripes with other languages if I knew them well enough but I could devote a lifetime to it and I'd still not get done hating the English language.
There simply aren't enough words.
Yes, I know we're not a kick in the pants off a million words now but most of those are no use to man or beast. I mean I've only ever used the word chiggy pig once in my life and that was in this sentence. Shakespeare, it's estimated, got by quite nicely thank you very much with no more than 25,000. To do so he milked each one till it was dry and then some. Admittedly his palette is a little thin – human nature, love, war – but anyone who has ever studied Shakespeare will realise that you don't need a huge vocabulary to express some pretty profound ideas.
I love you. I wonder if that's the most overused sentence ever excluding all those that might take God's name in vain at times of emotional upheaval or sexual arousal? I suspect Was it good for you too? might be the top question. What do you think? In my novel Living with the Truth I couldn't resist recording my feelings about 'love' for posterity:
Greek’s much better; they’ve a word for everything and four words for love. You have to love your mother, father, country, cat, wife, job, strawberry yoghurt and fellow man all with the one word. Can’t be done.
Okay I'm being flippant. And I have no idea why I always include strawberry yoghurt in the list because I hate strawberry yoghurt; it just seems to go. My point is that the word has been bent completely out of shape so as to render it effectively meaningless. And even where the context suggests one thing even then you cannot be absolutely sure how a) the person saying 'I love you' views the word and b) how the person hearing 'I love you' might interpret that expression.
I tell my wife that I love her on a regular basis although too often in response to an 'I love you' on her part; I need to work on that. I really have no idea what she takes from that expression nor do I worry about it. The words themselves have become simply a token, a thing to say. They are verbal hugs and frankly I'm happier with tangible hugs any day of the week. I think it's something that comes naturally with age; we depend less and less on words. We recognise them for what they are.
Not so the young. Which brings us to love poetry.
If a person has had a crack at writing only one poem in his or her life I would bet that it was a love poem. The first poem I have a copy of is a love poem. Of sorts. It's me remember. It would have to be 'of sorts'. Love though is a subject I've found myself compelled to write about many times in my life. And usually badly. Unless it's the kind of love that isn't going smoothly. Poems that huddle together under that umbrella are quite a bit better. The reason for that is that love is not generally the driving force behind the poem. Love is just something I'd been going through whilst writing the poem. Big difference. Biiiiiiiiig difference. I really don't do my best work when drawing on positive emotions.
But what makes love poetry so bad? Part of it I'm sure is the fact that we lose perspective when in love and we find it impossible to be objective about what we're writing. I've been spending some time looking at love poems and there are I think a number of signposts to look out for. I have no doubt that most of you will be able to add to this list but let's just see if I can make my point:
There are a number of things that make a love poem bad. An obvious one is that they often have ham-fisted rhyme schemes and use unnatural 'poetic' language:
For you I would climb
The highest mountain peak
Swim the deepest ocean
Your love I do seek.
I mean, who says, "Your love I do seek?" for God's sake?
Bad love poetry uses the most obvious metaphors:
In your eyes I see our present, our future and past,
By the way you look at me I know we will last.
They're invariably in the first person:
I don't think you could ever feel
all the love I have to give
and I'm sure you'll never realize
you've been my will to live.
They are generally so saccharine they should only be read as part of a calorie-controlled diet:
O nly for you
V erifying your love to me
E ternity together
They are so sincere that in their attempts at profundity they can often be unintentionally funny:
Love her boy and don’t take her for granite
For she has done so much for you even when she can't handle it
They give hyperbole a bad name:
I have passed through hell,
And I've known heaven --
I survived both; I am here.
I have seen too much; loved
Too deeply; Probably, I won't be free.
They so often state the bleedin' obvious and sometimes do so using inappropriate capitalisation (and in this case lacking appropriate punctuation):
I am Here, You are there
Across the World, In another place somewhere.
I think of you often, And I often Cry.
But its nice to know, We are under the same sky.
They often ask a lot of pointless questions with extra question marks for emphasis:
Why did he do this to me ????
Why does he feel he has to cut me down just to make it better for him!?
I just don't get it
If he cared even a little he wouldn't have done what he did
He just doesn't see the way I love him......
Is that enough? I think that's enough. We all recognise the kind of thing I'm on about. I bet most of you are cringing right now because you just know you've expressed these exact thoughts. The thing is, and this is the worst part of it, every single poet I've quoted here will I am sure have been totally sincere when they wrote these lines and would be devastated if they found them here being made fun of. So, let's be clear – I'm not making fun of anyone; it's simply so much easier to make a point with an example. (And if you don’t want your bad poetry held up as an example, you shouldn’t leave it lying around on the internet.) Also, as you'll see further on, I don't always get it right either.
If it's so easy to say what makes a bad love poem the question has to be asked then, what makes a good love poem? Time to put my credibility on the line I think and offer up a few examples. My main approach to the subject is to avoid as many clichés as possible, if you like to reinvent the love poem. This was my first attempt:
a hand out of blindness
a place to be
memories will come
a need for silence
(but not forced)
8 May 1977
I can tell you here and now that I'd just discovered William Carlos Williams at this point and this poem is heavily influenced by him although you may scratch your head and wonder where the connection is. It's not really important now. I think considering how young I was it's not a bad shot. What I think is good about it is that it could apply to anyone. And I think that's something we're looking for when we read other people's love poetry. I've written far better poems for individuals but you'd have to be the individual in question at that time and place for the thing to mean anything. Let's provide an example:
She didn't see it at first
because the world was full of lights.
Then the lights went out
and the sky was filled with stars.
But when the stars fell down
and all was dark and cold
then she noticed it,
alone and unsure,
in a universe of darkness.
And it was for her.
7 June 1994
Now, in terms of effect this second poem pulled out all the stops and hit every nail on the head if I can mix my metaphors for a moment. Suffice to say, it worked. Big time. I have no intention of explaining what was going on in Jeanette's life. I'm sure you can work up a scenario that would fit and you'd be wrong but that's all right. Where this is still a good poem is that it is open to interpretation. But it's not a good all purpose love poem. I don't think such a thing exists.
Now, let's consider at a poem which, looking back, I'm quite embarrassed over. It's exactly the kind of sentimental drivel that I've been slagging off:
YOU AND I, A POEM ABOUT IDENTITY
You are not me and yet to are -
you're that other part of me
that brings me to peace with myself.
Loneliness is incompletion
but you make me whole and still more:
you've let me see what I could be.
And I love you for that.
(for Jen, as if it could've been for anyone else)
17 August 1996
The 'Jen' of this poem is the 'Jeanette' from the earlier poem. Two years have passed and I'm convinced that I'm still in love. But there's a rider to this poem. I let my boss at the time read it and she immediately wanted a copy. For her it became 'the Barry poem' and that's now how I think about the thing. I've managed to salvage some self respect because the poem at least became meaningful to one person. And in a big way actually. It expressed exactly how she felt about this guy called Barry.
But, let's be honest, it's a bad poem. And what was that dedication all about?
Now, thirty years on from that first poem, shall we see if I can actually pull off a decent love poem:
I don't know
how clocks work
or time works
or hearts work.
I know that
but I know
that we work
though not how.
Some things don't
need a how
or a why.
Monday, 17 December 2007
Carrie quite often writes poems inside cards. I don't so often. I've never been very good at writing poems to order. This is a poem that came to me a few days before our wedding anniversary. It came out of the blue and I was very grateful. It's certainly not your typical love poem. For starters it's a love poem where the couple are no longer young or in good health. I said earlier that older couples frequently don't feel the same need to express themselves verbally. That doesn't mean we never do it.
It's a simple enough poem. The best always are. It's an admission that, after all these years (and quite a few loves), I still don't understand how love works. In my first poem I was looking forward to a time when we would be 'one' (at-one-ment) and would 'know', just know, and the fact is that thirty years on I'm happy to admit that not only do I not know, it doesn't matter that I don't know. Does my wife love me? Yes. I know that she loves me. But I don't know how she loves me.
I guess it's like the bumble bee. The bumble bee shouldn't be able to fly. Apparently he's aerodynamically unstable or something. Just as well he doesn't understand aerodynamics. And that's us.
I don't think I have too many love poems left in me. But one never knows. Maybe given another ten years I might have it nailed.