Love, like any deeply felt emotion, is difficult to describe. We often think that words cannot do it justice, but one form of language, the love poem, has been used through the centuries to express just that. And given the personal, heartfelt nature inherent to the artform, it’s often more meaningful than a piece of jewelry, box of chocolates, or any other cliche attached to Valentine’s Day in particular.
In this guide, we will consider the basic principles that make a good poem in general, in addition to the themes common to poems about love. We will investigate the qualities of verse, or the song-like rhythm we recognize in older poems, in addition to elements of content, like imagery.
Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.
About this lesson
Abstractions and generalities mean little. Your love is not basic; your poem is not basic.
About this lesson
Use imagery to bring idea-words like "love" to life.
About this lesson
Fixed forms like the sonnet are part of a great tradition of love poetry.
Lesson 1 Poem vs. Hallmark Card
Abstractions and generalities mean little. Your love is personal, and your poem should be too.
For a lot of people, the sappy arrangements in a typical Hallmark card are the most readily available example of poetry—or at least, of what we assume poetry is. In truth, those flowery lines, full of abstract emotion-words like “love,” “passion,” “happiness,” “bliss,” or “dream,” have little to do with the kind of poem you should write for your partner. A poem that could apply to anyone because it is so general would mean little to the one person it is meant for.
Making a poem personal, with specificity, starts with including imagery, or details that are picked up by the five physical senses. Physicality, not abstract ideas or emotions, is inherent for a poem. The Valentine’s Day e-card seen below is billed as a poem, but who is it meant for? What individual would read this and believe its writer cared specifically for him or her?
There is something about you…
Maybe it’s the way you smile…
The way you say things…
The way you talk, walk, breathe…
Your thoughts bring me moments of joy…
And your words make me visit a world
I’ve never visited before!
This arrangement of clichés and generalities can apply to nearly anyone on Earth, but a love poem always has one specific person in mind: the beloved.
This is the starting point for any real love poem—the specific details and imagery that color your relationship. Millions of people have experienced love, bliss, and desire, but not the form of those emotions particular to you and the one you love. Consider also that your relationship (and the full length of your life) is composed strictly of memories, and that memories in turn are composed of sensory information.
You cannot remember happiness in the abstract any more than you can remember the color blue—you can only remember the physical experiences that created happiness, and you can only remember the images that were blue. Though your poem may be "about" love, it should be made up of specific details that utilize the senses. That way, your poem can be experienced directly.
One of the easiest ways of introducing this element—and of beginning the poem more generally—is to focus on memories. Do a little brainstorming to gather fuel for your poem.
Think about this:
- How did you meet the person this love poem is for?
- What sensory details bring that memory to life?
Balance words that have no physical presence on their own, like "love" or "desire," with images that set the scene for your reader and draw him or her into the poem. Remember that your poem doesn't need to go straight for those big, abstract ideas and dwell on them. Such themes can be woven into the story you tell about the way your love exists in the world.
In one of the oldest recorded poems in the Western literary tradition, an incomplete poem we call “Fragment 31,” the 6th-century B.C. Greek poet Sappho describes a scene in which the speaker jealously watches her beloved with someone else.
He seems to me equal to gods, that man—
whoever he is, opposite you,
who sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing—oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment,
no speaking is left in me—
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost
I seem to me.
Notice how desire shows up in the way it affects the speaker's body. Here, desire is so strong it seems to make her sick. Yes, the notion of being lovesick was as familiar to an audience 2,500 years ago as it is today. Sappho balances a grand statement—that the person who gets to sit near her beloved and speak with him or her is comparable to the gods themselves—with the specific details of what it physically feels like to be near the one she loves.
Lesson 2 On Metaphor and Cliché
Use imagery to bring big words like "love" to life.
This is a love poem, after all, and it would be difficult to keep it completely free of abstractions. There can be room for a word like "beauty" or "love," which if treated right escape the dreaded clichés they're often attached to.
Here’s part of one of the most famous love poems, Lord Byron's "She Walks in Beauty":
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
What's immediately surprising about this poem is that the speaker describes the woman not as being beautiful herself, but as accompanying beauty as she walks in the world. It's as if her presence is what makes everything around her beautiful. That she "walks" in beauty at all is a metaphorical leap; beauty is a concept, not something you can walk into like a pool of water.
The coupling of a physical action, walking, with an abstraction, beauty, is our first hint of metaphor in this poem. The second is the simile "like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies"—in other words, like a clear night sky full of stars. Now we have a visible image to associate with beauty. You can try something similar, taking a cue from Byron: Describe how your partner makes the world around him or her beautiful.
But let's also bear in mind that this poem was written in the early years of the 19th century, some 200 years ago. While the image of the night sky itself is not a cliché--it's universal to human experience--the ways in which it can be described are rife with cliché. A word like "starry," for example, now has little of the originality it may have had in Byron's time.
Similarly, in Sappho’s aforementioned “Fragment 31,” the idea of a heart having wings in one’s chest appears. This image is familiar to us today both because it has been overused and because it seems to truthfully replicate how fast our hearts can beat when we’re near the ones we love. The trick for us now is to find a new way of expressing that feeling, or even using something similar to that winged image, without merely copying it.
You may also see love poems written these days that equate the language of the past with "poetic" language. The word "climes" in Byron’s poem, a word no one says anymore and essentially means "climate," would stick out in 2015 as a loud, obnoxious sign that reads: Be Advised; This Poem is Trying Too Hard! The same goes for many unfamiliar words in often-cited poems from the past.
But why would you want your reader to come across such unfamiliar words? Why add an obstacle to reaching the meaning in your poem? Don’t dip into the diction of the 18th century just to “sound poetic.”
Lesson 3 The Marriage of Content and Form
There’s a great tradition of poetry to be drawn upon, but in modern ways.
Nearly all poetry until roughly 1920 conformed to certain rhythmic patterns, which necessitated the use of words with specific numbers of syllables. That, in turn, led poets to organize sentences is unorthodox ways.
Take Whitman’s famous line “When lilacs last at the dooryard bloom’d.” In today’s spoken English, the verb “bloomed” wouldn’t appear at the end of the clause. But say that line out loud, and you notice a kind of soft-loud pattern alternating with the syllables: when lilacs last at the dooryard bloom’d. The need to rearrange the order of words to conform to such patterns is the origin of the odd sentence structure we see with poetry from other centuries.
But again, like some images or words common to old poetry, inversion isn’t a signal of good contemporary poetry so much as a signal that the poet is stuck in another era. In 2016, such a line would only distract the reader: What year does this poem think it is? Instead of trying to copy poetic sentences from 200 years ago, structure your own the way you would speak normally.
That isn’t to say that rhythm has no place in your poems. Many great poets of our own time continue to use meter, the word for that alternating rhythm, to give their poems song-like qualities and echo the tradition they came from. For most of the art’s existence, such meters tied poems to their origins as religious or narrative chants; today, they can make a poem more memorable and enhance its meaning. For contemporary poets like Nathaniel Perry and Dana Gioia, meter is still the key to poems. Perry writes:
You are something like
a flame, something clear,
an ocean’s water near
the shore, the open strike
of thunder in the air,
November stars, snow.
In plain language, these lines capture a particular rhythm, the back-and-forth meter called iambic. Read it out loud: You are something like a flame, something em, an
It reminds us of an older kind of poetry that many continue to appreciate and love but uses none of the archaic words that characterizes novice attempts at writing poems. Note also the way the poem defines the addressed subject, the “you,” with a series of comparisons using timeless images. Here, too, the poetry of another century is hinted at without hitting you over the head.
Fixed forms with defined lengths, rhyme schemes and structures remain in use today too, and one of the most famous, the sonnet, accounts for much of the western tradition of love poetry. Abiding by the strict rules of a sonnet can be a help and a hindrance: knowing that the end of a line must rhyme can help you discover images or metaphors, linked only by that necessary rhyme, which you would otherwise ignore. On the other hand, that same requirement can stifle the creative leaps that can help you generate the next line. These opposing forces often appear at different points during the composition of a single poem.
If you’ve gotten started on a sonnet and come to a road block, consider that the form has gotten looser over the centuries. Slant rhyme, which Emily Dickinson preferred, can broaden the pool of words for use at the end of a line. Contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s “Glanmore Sonnets” display a masterful use of slant rhyme that still adheres to the familiar schemes. Many sonnets written today go further and are recognized as sonnets only because they have 14 lines, with or without rhymes.
If you’re interested in writing a sonnet, there are a couple of tricks to try:
- You can write a first draft that doesn’t abide by the rules at all and then work on fitting it it into the form’s rules.
- Or, you can start with the rules first by thinking about which words, or even just sounds, you’d like to rhyme.
The two common rhyme schemes are the English, or Shakespearean (abab cdcd efef gg) and the Italian or Petrarchan (abbaabba cdecde or cdcdcd). Choose whichever you prefer and you’ll be on your way to writing a sonnet for your loved one.
Lesson 4 The Message and the Messenger
There are themes common to many love poems that may help jump-start your own.
“Love poetry” as a term encompasses a huge range of tones, subjects, and styles. For the most part, we have covered the technical workings of an effective poem. But we should also consider also the intention behind the poem, what you want out of it.
Like a drawing, song, or anything handmade as a gift, a poem is first and finally an expression of its maker, and yours will differ from anyone else’s. But we can still consider some common themes and examples of love poems with radically different motives that can help you begin your own.
One theme is that of denied desire: If we love someone, what hurts more than to be apart? Throughout a chronology of love poem, the concept of separation, and the pains of missing the person we love, frequently accompany the most emotionally powerful poems.
We saw it first in Sappho’s fragment, when the speaker can only watch her beloved interact with someone else. Many couples go through a period of time when work or school forces great distance between them. As the saying goes, absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. You can tap into the intensity of those memories, or you can imagine the longing you would feel while spending six months or a year apart. What did that feel like?
Likewise, there are poems that praise forbidden love or, at least, love that has to be kept hidden for whatever reason. Even something as unassuming as going out for a walk under the night sky has a secretive element that can be drawn out in a poem. In Robert Browning’s “Meeting at Night,” the speaker rows across a body of water to reach the person he loves:
The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed in the slushy sand.
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each.
Love poems may also be more outwardly erotic than these. Twentieth-century American poet Adrienne Rich’s “21 Love Poems,” and in particular the unnumbered “Floating Poem,” occur where lust meets love.
While we tend to think of love poems as dealing with idealistic or purely romantic emotion, Rich’s poems are one example of blending that with more explicitly sexual images. Like the other elements of your poem, whether or not to make your poem R- or (X-) rated depends on your own relationship and which aspect of it you want to highlight in the poem.
The most common kind of love poem aims for something more innocent or devoted. Here we might include something used during a wedding or as part of one’s vows.
Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments….”) is a classic of this type. Another is the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet that begins, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Pablo Neruda’s “If You Forget Me” and e.e. cumming’s “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]” are more modern examples. However, note that these poems, along with any that take the idealization of love as their goal, risk generalizing to the point of losing their personal meaning. The trick here, as in most things, is to strike a balance.
It’s through striking that balance and following our guide that you, too, will be able to write a love poem for your beloved.