By Colorado Review Associate Editor Daniel Schonning
For most of us, the pitfalls associated with writing a modern love poem are nearly too many to count. On one side: the saccharine, the sentimental, the end-rhymed and metrical. On the other: the woe-filled; the creepy; the self-obsessed, erotic magnum opus. Somewhere between exists the razor’s edge of amorous writing, wherein dwells the successful love poem.
In my brief time as a master’s candidate, I’ve found near-consensus among my peers: love poetry is a moving target, one at which most of us choose not to take aim. Its tradition is replete with enough master works and embarrassing missteps already—to write into that tradition is to achieve the rare esteem of the former, or fall into the miserable ranks of the latter.
This is not to say, of course, that love does not feature in poetry—indeed, for many, the lyric may innately call to mind an invocation of love. From Sappho to Louise Glück, whether love is the focus of the poet or not, its influence is ubiquitous—without love, without desire, there would hardly be anything about which to write. To write a poem on the colloquial sort of romantic, mushy, unabashed infatuation, however, feels altogether different.
Poet Rebecca Lindenberg (whose 2014 collection, The Logan Notebooks, we published as part of the Mountain West Poetry Series), in her aptly titled 2016 collection, Love, an Index, may offer a framework. In her poem “What Rings but Can’t Be Answered” she writes:
I want to be the crackers in your soup,
I want to be your brass compass. Oh, mister,
just thinking about you curls the ends of my hair.
The clock tisk-tisks.
Here, the poet does what successful love poetry, it seems, must: proceeds in a logic that is aware of itself; risks sentimentality and so gains authenticity; reflects upon a feeling while still building something new, something shared by both writer and reader. The poem is playful, clever, and—perhaps most vitally—sets the object of the speaker’s desire yet outside of her grasp.
As Anne Carson offers in her love-attentive work, Eros the Bittersweet, “To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living help.” For Carson, the traditional erotic is a triangle: one made of lover, beloved, and lack. Love poems, it might be, must “be running breathlessly”—must give equal measure to lack.
Seamus Heaney may offer a counterpoint, as he gives us a striking and clear-eyed look at love in his poem “Mossbawn: Sunlight.” The piece closes:
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
Rather than setting the object of his desire somewhere beyond him, Heaney treats his reader to a world in which that desire is wholly realized—we are granted to steep in love aplenty, in a feeling reverent, overjoyed, and fully realized.
And so, the question stands: do we endeavor to place ourselves upon that knife-edge separating the stirring love poem from the sentimental rag? Looking on today’s wooing rituals involving emojis; Snapchat portraits; and witty, one-sentence dating app introductions—love poetry may feel anachronistic. While the conventions of modern love may exceed many of us (or perhaps just me), the love poem exists—one hopes—somewhere outside the generation gap, somewhere in that most vital impulse to risk sentimentality in the name of deeply held feeling.