love & hate by Abhi, under a Creative Commons licence
When he left, I found, in front of his chair,
a bloody rag, part of the dressing,
a rag to be thrown straight into the garbage;
and I put it to my lips
and kept it there a long while—
the blood of love against my lips.
C. P. Cavafy, from 'The Bandaged Shoulder'
While love is perhaps the oldest and most grand poetic theme, it is arguably also the hardest to respond to, with 'happiness' coming a close second. Now, Valentine's Day is approaching, and you've made that difficult decision – you're happy, you're in love and you want to write a poem about it.
The happy love poem may be the most difficult of all. Sad, broken-hearted, love lost, alone forever, how-could-you-you-b*stard poems are not so difficult to write, though adding anything to the oeuvre that hasn't been said before remains challenge.
My darling, o happy day, I've found the one, my heart is o'er full with, etc… now those poems are tricky. Tricky because, like the heartbroken poem, it can seem as though it's all been said before. Tricky because the genre invites cliché to a distracting degree. Flowers and sunshine, glistening skin and golden locks? Sweet, warm, delicious? Hallmark. How do we avoid the inane while still opening the window onto our innermost emotions?
I think the trick is two-fold, at least. It might be not so different from getting to grips with trying to write any sort of poetry that is moving and unique. First, we need to turn our attention away from all the gorgeous poetry we've heard before on the subject. Don't get me wrong! It is important to know your love poems. They're wild and precious and inspiring. Neruda, Shakespeare, Rossetti… The list is endless. They are a useful starting point, but the greats are so great, they can be intimidating, enough to put you off, or worse, you are so influenced, you merely repeat what's gone before.
Secondly, we have to be honest. That doesn't mean there can't be an element of artifice, but the original impulse must originate with the poet being honest with him- or herself. Take a real, deep look at what's in your heart, and respond to that. Once you know what you want to say, you can add as many disguises as you like.
So, you've had a look. You've seen something extraordinary; you really do love the person you want to write the poem for. Excellent! Now, what words are you going to use?
What's the thing you're most afraid to say? What sounds unromantic, startling, crass? What words would you use to describe your love inside your own head, rather than to his or her face? What do you think of when you're missing them? What do you think of when you've had an argument and you want to make up? What do you remember about when you first met? What were you hoping for, before you met, that they fulfil? What are you thankful for every day that you're together? What would you miss if they were gone? Where does your joy reside? What do you laugh at together? What makes you laugh about each other? What would you sacrifice to be with them? What animal/scent/city reminds you of them? What do you dream of when you dream of them? What do you hate about them? What do you love?
There are so many more questions you could start with. Push yourself to think of questions you wouldn't normally ask and write down the answers. The poem might appear. If not, it might conjure a word, a spark of a thought that lights up the poem. Go with it. If we each have within ourselves one most precious gift to give, it is the power to be original. Trust yourself. That's the best way to love.
SPL Programme Manager
Jennifer Williams will lead the SPL's Poetry Workshop on Tuesday, 25 February, 6pm – 8pm (£5 / £4). This writing workshop is suitable for writers at any stage in their career. We’ll read, discuss, write and workshop poems at each session. The workshop takes place at The Saltire Society, 9 Fountain Close, 22 High Street, Edinburgh. Tickets can be bought by clicking here.