The Problems of Love Poetry


Let me share with you an exchange of emails from 2004, and my later thoughts about the problems inherent in writing/reading love poetry.


From: SPIL

Re: Poetry

The good news: I am writing poetry again.

The bad news: It’s love poetry.

The other bad news: I can’t tell if it’s working.


I recently (2005) came across a blurb for Irish poet Eavan Boland’s new book Against Love Poetry. Without knowing anything about it, I cheered. I have always respected Boland’s work, and the fact that she is tackling one of the ever-present problems of poetry—how do we write about love?—offered me hope because I too write poetry for publication (poets who don’t are likely to face different problems) and I recently fell in love.

What are the problems?

It seems to me that the three issues that arise are 1) defining poetry—its purposes and mechanisms; 2) considering the possible audiences—writer, general readers, critical readers, and the beloved; and 3) understanding the work of love in the creative process.

Defining poetry—condensed attention expressed in the most appropriate, elegant, and/or musical way possible, for the purpose of offering (to ourselves, to others) a clearer insight into human experience. This will do as a working definition for now.

Considering audiences is important because different audiences with different expectations (often expressed through or caused by “education”) will read the same thing in different ways. I think that the four main audiences for a contemporary love poem that might be published are the writer, general readers, critical readers, and the beloved.

Writers, I believe, write first and foremost for themselves. As a poet, I want to understand my own thoughts/feelings/experience, to express it for myself alone. Elegance, music, artistry, may or may not help at this level. General readers want a way to say what they have experienced, particularly if they don’t know how to express it themselves. Concrete details and sensory imagery (the heart of any poem) are the most important elements at this level. Critical readers expect a high level of intentional structure, style, craftsmanship, and artistry. They don’t just want to know how an experience was, they want to read the best possible, most clearly expressed, version of how that experience was. Only the beloved, the recipient, generally has no expectations, except that I don’t lie about him or to him, that I don’t embarrass him, and that I don’t make it so obscure that he doesn’t understand it.

Understanding the work of love in the creative process is probably the most difficult, in part because it is the most subjective. What is love? What is work? What is the creative process and why do we engage in it?

Poet and Novelist May Sarton wrote, “[A]ll poems are love poems…the motor power, the electric current is love of one kind or another. The subject may be something quite impersonal—a bird on the windowsill, a cloud in the sky, a tree” (Sarton 125). I think she is right on the money, and I might even add that all good writing is, in some way, love poetry, because the attention we pay to the details of the beloved, in this case whatever your subject is, leads to the kind of precise word choice that good writing always entails. You cannot write a love poem about someone you do not know well. You might end up writing an infatuation poem, because the details in the poem probably will say more about what you WANT the person to be than about what s/he really is.

In contrast, poetic attention can become a kind of communion. As our old friend Basho said, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural—if the object and yourself are separate—then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit” (Basho, qtd. in Yusa 33).


From: PJS

Re: Poetry


The good news: I am writing poetry again.


The bad news: It’s love poetry.


The other bad news: I can’t tell if it’s working.

            Uh-oh again. If not, there’s always voodoo! (Siska)

In the end, that particular relationship went the way of the Dodo, and I decided that even Voodoo was not going to save it. But my friend was not wrong when she interpreted a working poem as being like ritual devotion/magic. As the artist Peter London wrote, “For the primal image-maker, craft was not in the service of beauty in and of itself. Instead, craft was in the service of power. The more carefully wrought the object was, the more powerfully the object would serve as an instrument of transformation and…the gods would be inclined to honor the supplication” (London 9).

Happy Valentines Day, folks. Especially if you are not in a relationship. Hell, we need it more.


London, Peter. No More Second Hand Art. Shambhala, 1989.

Sarton, May. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. New York: Norton, 1965.

Siska, Pamela. “Re: Poetry.” E-mail to the author. 9 Sept. 2004.

Yusa, Nobuyuki. Introduction. The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. By Basho. Trans. Nobuyuki Yusa. Baltimore: Penguin, 1966.

Haiku and the Problem of English


Toodling around on WordPress for the past few days, I keep seeing people writing what they undoubtedly think of as haiku. I got taught what everybody else got taught about haiku in fifth grade English class: a haiku is a Japanese three-line poem, the lines having five, seven, and five syllables, for a grand total of seventeen syllables. Easy-peasy, right? Well, actually, no.

First of all, that description is a definition of a senryu, not a haiku. For the poem to be a haiku, it needs a kigo, a word that refers to the seasons and nature. Also there should be a kireji, a “cutting” word, that is like a caesura (pause) in English poetry. Often, translations of Japanese poems in English will use punctuation like a colon or a period to show the stopping and starting again. Often the first two lines set up an image and the last line pulls the rug out from under the reader or possibly gives the reader something new to appreciate.

Second, syllables in English are very different from syllables in Japanese. The word for teacher, sensei, looks like two syllables to an English speaker, but is in fact four in Japanese, se/n/se/i. This means that while you could feasibly have as many as seventeen words in a seventeen-syllable poem in English, Japanese poets are using very few words indeed.

One of the ways that the classical poets got around this problem was with a kind of poetic shorthand, phrases or tropes that everyone recognized. So, for example, the phrase “wet sleeves” implies the end of a love affair.

One of the uses of these shorter poems (we can talk about tanka, renga and haibun another time) is to write a final farewell poem at one’s death. Often a samurai would write such a poem before going off to battle, as presumably, one fights with more ferocity if one has accepted the possibility of one’s death and prepared oneself for it.

To the Western world, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is probably the most well-known and widely quoted Japanese poet. You probably had his frog haiku in your schoolbook just as I did: furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

an ancient pond

a frog jumps in

the splash of water [1686]

I also really like Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828). He is one of the four great haiku masters, along with Basho, Buson and Shiki. Here is one of his poems.

O snail

Climb Mount Fuji,

But slowly, slowly!