Ah, love. The subject of millions of poems, over years and centuries. It’s been compared to roses, to horses, to pottery — you name it, it’s probably been used as a metaphor for love in a poem. Yes, even nuclear explosions! So you’d think since everyone seems to love a love poem, they’d be easy to write, yes?
No. You can certainly write an ordinary, banal, soppy, simpering love poem without any problem, especially one that rhymes (badly) — think moon and June. You can probably even write a fairly decent love poem, if you wanted. But the challenge for a poet is always — how can I write something original and unique?
That’s why love poems are so hard. It’s all been done before.
So what’s the solution? Firstly, to seek out a range of love poems and especially look for ones that do it differently. A poet like Billy Collins always seems to find a unique perspective — “The Lanyard” is about a boy’s love for his mother, “Aimless Love” is about falling in love with tiny things throughout the day. “The Song is You” by Marilyn Nelson is about a musical instrument no longer loved by its owners.
Then think about where your urge to write a love poem comes from. Is it inspired by a particular person? An overwhelming emotion you’re feeling right now? A lost love you’re still mourning? Start by exploring in detail what it is you actually want to explore and make a poem about. Often, twenty minutes of free writing works, because it gets out all the familiar, cliched stuff first, then as you keep writing, more original thoughts and images will emerge.
You may find a brainstorm or mind map is better for you, where you can focus on words and images in strings and bubbles as a way of pushing and exploring the impetus for your poem. Remember that the purpose of both of these methods is to push yourself beyond the clichés, to find original words and ideas and possibilities — they’re in your head, you just have to let them out.
Remember the key element of a strong poem — the universal is in the particular. This means as soon as you start to use abstract words like love and passion and beauty and magic and… the poem will lose all of its power. Those words are so overused, and so meaningless to many, that they will drag your poem down.
But as soon as you focus on images and ideas that are very particular to you, or use something as a metaphor that is unexpected or different, you will start creating something original — something that could only be written by you.
In your first draft, the key question is “what is my poem about?” Answer precisely. Rather than your answer being “love”, refine it. Be focused. Then explore that focus as much as you can. Put all of your ideas down. Cutting and pruning is for future drafts. Don’t censor yourself. You might think focus and explore widely are contradictory — they’re not if you focus first, then explore.
If you want to use a metaphor, experiment by choosing something unexpected. You want to write a poem about how much you love your mother? Write about her as if she is a comfortable chair. Your lover is wild and wonderful? Write about them as if they are a forest.
In your redrafting, you’ll want to weed out anything familiar or cliched, anything that feels abstract. You’ll also want to make sure every verb is strong, every descriptor is working hard. You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned rhyme once. I think adding rhyme to a love poem makes your job a hundred times harder — you’ll end up in knots over the rhymes and trying to avoid sounding like a Valentine’s day card. Keep your focus on imagery and metaphor instead.
Some people are able to rhyme naturally and make it work — but for many poets it’s like a huge weight on their shoulders that crushes the poem.
The originality in your poem will come from you — your unique perspective on love that only you could have. Your challenge is to find the way to put that on the page without being distracted by the over-used and the banal. My example is here on Medium — Dawn Romance — with a little twist in its tail.