Love Primer

Using the right tone of voice to express love is an important aspect of mastering the genre. You'll become more familiar with the mechanical aspects of voice in chapter eight, but for now, think of it simply as the "sound" you hear on the page when you read a poem. According to Ruth Daigon, who has published and edited dozens of love poems, "For beginning poets, love poetry is synonymous with a passionate outpouring, a singing, a saying, a surrender to the emotion. They feel that to restrain or modify such language would in some way betray the depth of feeling. However, the greater the extent of passion, the more appropriate it is to harness and control such energy."

Daigon says Wordsworth's advice about poetry in general applies to love poetry in particular. "Wordsworth talked about poetry as being 'a spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.' Young poets too often emphasize the 'overflow' rather than the 'recollection.' Recollection implies a disciplinary process that is essential when composing love poetry."

As editor of a small-press magazine, Daigon says she sees plenty of undisciplined submissions. I can verify that fact. When I edited poetry for a literary journal, I read thousands of bad love poems (the most popular type of submission). These poems had two things in common: The subject matter was safe, usually a tribute to a lover, and the voice was either antiquated or raw. It seemed poets were mimicking voices of love poems that sounded contemporary in other centuries, as this example illustrates:

Let me love thee evermore, For time knows not "yesterday"

or "when," Nor will it honor deeds of yore Or heed the heart again. . . .

Or they were failing to control their voices, as this example illustrates :

I want you so much I think about you every hour and waking minute of the day hoping that time slips away so I can be with you again.

Let's make some observations about antiquated language and safe subject matter in love poems.

Poets who try to sound like the Elizabethan and Victorian masters make two mistakes. First, they sound pompous or silly. Second, they forget that the ideas behind the poems of, say, Shakespeare and Dickinson are what fascinates contemporary readers. Surely the language of master poets is still beautiful and musical, but it is not your language anymore; you can't use it as well as your own contemporary tongue whose beauty and music should come to you more naturally.

As for the need to shun "safe" love poems, think about the nature of romance. Fact: People take all sorts of risks in real life when they feel love for or desire another person. Fact: Some people jeopardize or split up their families, others commit their lives forever to the wrong people, and a few even suffer physically and mentally from love's scars. Fact: Some couples overcome huge obstacles in life, others marry the right people and abandon destructive lifestyles, and a few even heal the physical and mental scars caused by past experience — all because of love.

But when many of these people sit down to compose love poems, for some reason they jettison what they know and write little ditties like this:

I like to think of sunset nights and mornings full of dew, and all the moments in between I spend in love with you.

Perhaps they write such poems in part because they can identify them as love poems. They want their lovers or would-be lovers who receive them to acknowledge the gesture as much as the genre. But the fact is that they are not being truthful about the essence of love. Sure, it's a wonderful feeling when reciprocated, but it tends to mess up or reorganize your life.

Contemplate how love has reorganized your life goals and/or priorities. What happened? Refer to that list of highs, lows and turning points of your life (which you wrote in the chapter one notebook exercise) and make another more specialized list related to your love life or relationships. A high point can be as subtle as a glance across the room from someone you would like to know, or as heady as a marriage proposal. A turning point can be the realization that you love (or do not love) another person. A low can be telling that person that you have fallen out of love or listening to someone tell you. Moreover, if you truly care or have cared about a person, you should be able to generate dozens of ideas based on dozens of highs, lows and turning points, because the phases of each relationship — meeting and courting a loved one, consummating or ending the union —resemble peaks and valleys on a chart.

Once you have identified and classified your experiences, decide how you want to convey them. Do you want to direct your poem at a lover or at a reader or both? You would be surprised how such a determination can change an idea for a poem and serve almost as a check to see if your idea entails an element of risk. For instance, I

find it helpful when brainstorming for ideas to imagine the person(s) I want to address in a particular setting. I ask myself:

• How would I tell it to my lover, if I knew that my friend was behind a curtain in the room, overhearing the conversation?

• How would I tell it to my friend, if I knew that my lover was behind that curtain, overhearing the conversation?

• How would I tell it if I was speaking to my friend with my lover sitting with us at the kitchen table?

• How would I tell it if I was speaking to my lover with my friend sitting with us at the kitchen table?

What these questions accomplish, of course, is a preview of the type of voice you will choose for your poem. As Ruth Daigon stated earlier, voice is paramount in a love poem. It shapes content and indicates risk (a situation in which it would be uncomfortable to speak in the presence of another). To illustrate, I have taken a stanza from one of my love poems and altered the voice (whose sound is described by adjectives) according to each of the above questions:

1. How would I tell this idea to my lover?

What is it that wants as the body never has, with every corpuscle of being, the system immune to shocks of blame and embarrassment, to all checks and balances that keep custody of the self? Voice: passionate, rhetorical, irritated

2. How would I tell it to a friend (reader)?

Why does the heart yearn more than the body with every corpuscle of being, as if the system were immune to shocks of blame or embarrassment, to checks and balances of the self?

Voice: philosophical, reflective, introspective

3. How would I tell it to my lover, if I knew my friend was behind a curtain in the room, overhearing the conversation?

Why does the heart want you more than the body, with every corpuscle of being, my system immune now to blame and embarrassment, whatever keeps custody of the self?

Voice: bold, rhetorical, irritated

4. How would I tell it to my friend, if I knew my lover was behind a curtain in the room, overhearing the conversation?

It's not the body, but the heart wants her with every corpuscle of being, as if I'm immune now to shocks of blame and embarrassment, to all checks and balances of the self.

Voice: plaintive, introspective, candid

5. How would I tell it if I was speaking to my friend with my lover sitting with us at the kitchen table?

I want her more with my heart than my body, though she doesn't believe this. No matter. Every corpuscle of my being is immune now to blame and embarrassment, to all checks and balances of the self.

Voice: plaintive, resigned, candid

6. How would I tell it if I was speaking to my lover with my friend sitting with us at the kitchen table?

It's the heart, not the body, wants you with every corpuscle of being. Say what you will — I'm immune now to blame and embarrassment to whatever it is that imprisons the self.

Voice: candid, defensive, imploring

As you can see, depending on the voice, the subject matter changes somewhat in each setting. That's because the poem takes a risk. If the voice doesn't change in each setting, then your topic is so mundane or ordinary that no person would sneak behind a curtain to overhear. No lover at the kitchen table would mind another person being present. In fact, take the earlier examples of "bad" love poetry (employing antiquated, undisciplined and sugary voices) and run them through each scenario above. Nothing will change because nothing is at stake.

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