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Friday, 3 July 2009

Why I hate love poetry


2 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.

tatty175 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:

L oving
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
Why me
Why now
If he cared even a little he wouldn't have done what he did
He just doesn't see the way I love him......


tatty19 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
to touch

words whispered

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.

(For Jeanette)

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 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

tatty21 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
broken things

shouldn't work
but I know

that we work
though not how.

Some things don't
need a how

or a why.

(for Carrie)

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.



Marion McCready said...

Love poems and religious poems are really hard to do well aren't they?! I rarely write love poems either for the same reasons you mentioned. The only one I've written that I really liked was a triolet, I think the form helped thinking out of the usual clap-trap box!

Jim Murdoch said...

You're right, Sorlil but it's the same with anything that has a long history. How do you bring something new to the table? It's hard. And so it is inevitable that we find that someone has got there before us more times than not. I have a little religious poetry but not much and - surprisingly - I'm not sure any of could be classified as anti-religious poetry. It's just a subject that has rarely inspired me. But then there are so many things out there that just don't do it for me.

I have never found predefined forms a help though. As I've got older I've found that my poetry naturally finds its own shape and I feel nothing drawing me away from what clearly is working for me.

Dave King said...

You've done it again, my next post was to be a love poem - probably still will be, I didn't mean to imply that it will not be because of your post!

I liked Yesterday very much, though I didn't see the William Carlos Williams influence. No matter, as you say, for I know how poets who have influenced me often are not very visible in what I write.

I do happen to think, though, that love poetry is the hardest poetry to write, though I'm not sure that is on account of the language. As to that, I guess that when we are trying to be poets we have to coin our own words for love - or borrow from the Greeks!

Dave King said...

P.S. Meant to add that the poem to Carrie was easily the best! Says something about you, I reckon.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Dave, I was quite pleased with that poem for Carrie. We may have only been married to each other for twelve years but we've been married a lot longer if you count our other marriages so we feel like an old married couple who've been together since we were kids. It's hard finding new and interesting ways to say the same things. But we play with words. It's what poets do. This would be a typical exchange between the two of us:

Carrie: I love you.
Jimmy: I love you too.
Carrie: How much do you love me?
Jimmy: Two point five.
Carrie: Is that all?
Jimmy: On a scale of one to two point four that's not bad.

As for the Williams influence. It was one poem in particular, the abbreviated version of 'The Locust Tree in Flower', that had a huge affect on my poetry but it's hard to explain. I'll write about it one of these days.

Art Durkee said...

I see your WCW influence as structural, mostly. In that poem, anyway. Some word-play influence, but mostly structural.

Your list, with examples, of the worst pitfalls that (bad) love poetry falls into is brilliant. Right on target.

Then there's the "breaking up" or "why didn't we love each other more/enough?" poem. And the "I loved you but now I hate you" poem; this latter category contains some great writing, actually, as nothing inspires like invective and spleen.

For me, the biggest problem with love poems is their utter predictability. The same feelings we've all had, which far too many writers think that expressing the same way others have is good enough. It's not. The reason love poems are so full of clichés is precisely because people are lazy, and use easy signs (which is what clichés are) to stand in for actual experience. If someone writes a love poem from their actual experience it's often already less bad than otherwise. Of course, most folks shouldn't try to write love poems in their teens, when they haven't really had enough experience yet, or read enough poetry, to know what's overly familiar, and what's unique to their experience.

McGuire said...

Love poems are a no-no. I've written a few but none of them that successful. You have read some of them, but they are odd love poems, in that I tend to describe a person in a kind of heightened obssessed way, which when read if you're feeling in love kind of enhances it but it you don't feel that way it would read a sentimentality gone too far.

'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'

That's excellent. Really funny and quite wry in its own way.

I think it can be hard for a love poem to be sincere, because so often poets or witers revert to cliche. Sometimes I think love poetry is actually all wrong - that what love poetry i is not love, but caring for people in general but expressed in the particular. Those private feelings we have for people (friends familieis lovers) of their vulnerability, their charm, their faults.

Down with love poems and up with care. But keep it quiet and not too sentimental.

Roberta S said...

Jim, I read this post with interest a couple of days ago and came away with a thorough distaste for any poem of 'love'. And sorry, but even your poem to your dear one was not appealing to my affections or affectations, whatever the case may be.

But then, I came across something that I felt might impact on my like or dislike of the examples you cited. A theory having to do with triplet syllabic lilts (as your love poem has).

To me it is unforgiveable and the last thing I ever intended to do -- i.e. go to a site and refer that site to my site...
but after writing my post, and returning here, I think if my theory holds true, there might be a definite connection between it and the love poems you discuss. Then again, maybe not...

Jim Murdoch said...

I guess you're right there, Art. I have also always admired Williams' use of plain language which he obviously has in common with Larkin but in this case it was the shape of the poem that really hit home. About this time I also ran across E E Cummings' poem about a falling leaf and that also struck a chord.





I did think about talking about all the varieties of love poem but they all come under the umbrella of 'bad love poetry' so I decided to leave it. I would suggest that the most popular kind if the why-doesn't-he/she-love-me-any-more? variety.

And, of course, you're right when it comes to age but one might also suggest that no writer should be let near a piece of paper till he's thirty. I must have been nineteen when I wrote 'Yesterday' and I wouldn't be embarrassed to send it out now but it would look so out of place with my most recent work.

McGuire, if you can find a new way to attack the love poem then go for it. People are still managing to churn out love songs that are a wee bit different so why not poetry? And if you can come up with a 'care poem' then why not?

Love suffers more than most topics but we all have to hold our work up against those who have gone before us. It's like trying to write an anti-war poem after Wilfred Owen. Not so easy.

And, Roberta, that is an interesting theory which I'm not going to try and disprove. What I did have in mind when I structured 'Broken Things' was to suggest a heartbeat. If memory serves me right the first draft of this piece was laid out as follows:

     I don't know how clocks work
     or time works or hearts work.

     I know that broken things
     shouldn't work but I know

     that we work though not how.
     Some things don't need a how

     or a why.

and, of course, that does change the flow of the piece but the meaning stays the same.

And I have no problem with anyone pointing me elsewhere be it to an article they've written or one by someone else in fact it's often better to have the matter removed from the restrictive space of the comments box so that an idea can be expressed more fully.

Roberta S said...

Thank you for responding to my comment so quickly, Jim. And also for acknowledgement that it was okay to direct you to my site.

As to the original of the poem we were discussing, I do like the original better (and I think that I make that assessment without triple syllabic bias).

Jennifer said...

Jim -- I read this last week and, for various reasons, couldn't comment at the time. But I'm back ...

For our first Valentine's Day as a couple, my now-husband gave me a book of Pablo Neruda's love poetry: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. I haven't looked at it in a long time, but just picking it up and choosing two lines at random from the poem "Every Day You Play": "While the sad wind goes slaughtering butterflies / I love you, and my happiness bites the plum of your mouth."

I think a "good" love poem probably has to be written out of the moment and acknowledge that things change and that love is tinged with the threat of loss, one way or another.

Jim Murdoch said...

That's for getting back to me, Jennifer. It doesn't matter how long you take.

I sent my wife a book of poems by Erica Jong – she bought the Neruda herself when she finally came over here. I don't think she's ever bought me a book of poems unless it was one I asked for and they don't count.

We have three "holy days of obligation" – her expression: birthdays, Valentine's Day and our wedding anniversary. These need to be acknowledged in some way. Poems are not obligatory but when they happen naturally they add something in fact I think the only poetry Carrie has written over the last few years has been for one or other of these occasions which is both nice and a shame at the same time.

I think a "good" poem full stop probably has to be written out of the moment and acknowledge that things change and that life is tinged with the threat of loss, one way or another, if I can borrow your sentence. The best poems always come when the ideas are hot or at least warm, What can you do with a cold idea?

looking for love said...

I could not agree with you more. When did "I love you" change from something with more meaning than any other phrase (maybe besides I hate you), to something that you say without thinking as you hang up the phone? And actually I think I hate you can be thrown into this. We have lost the true meaning of love and hate. We use them interchangeably with like and dislike.

By the way, a most used phrase you forgot besides I love you and Was it good for you too?... It's not you, it's me.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well said, Looking for Love. I notice that when I'm writing how I'll play fast and loose with synonyms. Often, as you say, I'll say that I love something but if I find I've used the word too many times I have no problem changing a few of them to 'like' or anything that gets the idea over; precision accuracy isn't nearly as important as it once was, we really are very sloppy in our speech and in our written communications.

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