Love is boring and cliché and beat up and over used and dull. Love is one of the most endured emotions of human existence, it’s unavoidable, and if we’re very lucky, we get to lose it. In the losing, we’ll discover something even more beautiful, more enduring: the cycle of renewal. With even more luck, that which comes after the initial love will be stronger, deeper, real, and actually worth writing about.
Let’s consider a love idea, the kind that end up rotting out a readers teeth, for example the first seven lines of How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43) by Elizabeth Barette Browning. There are so few English speaking people that have not heard, at some point in their lives, ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ and anyone whose been around for more than 30 years just read the same way the owl talked about the tootsie pop (a one, a two, a three… crunch.) She gushes for the next six lines about how huge her love is…but whoa ho, what is this at line eight? A shift:
‘I love thee with the passion put to use / In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. / I love thee with a love I seemed to lose / With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, / Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, / I shall but love thee better after death.’ (Browning)
The author becomes human and that’s what makes this poem so powerful. Without the shift from perfect virtuous love to a human emotion, which is imperfect and marred by griefs and loss and tears, the sonnet will do little more than sit on the tongue and sicken a readers stomach like molasses. The simple, pure ideal of love does not exists in the ‘real world.’ There aren’t people walking around in a perfect daze of romantic glee. We simply cannot exists that way because we, ourselves, are not perfect. That imperfection is why there must be tension in a love poem. Without it, the poem reads, feels, and drips false.
Bruce Covey in Body & Isn’t addressees the idea of tension in a different way. He mingles traditional love motifs like flowers: ‘Heft of a wet peony, white & pink, drips its honey south’ (Covey) with man-made architectural objects: ‘Ceiling defines the segment; door, the vector. Exits & entrances’ (Covey) and usually not identified as romantic body parts such as ribcages and sacral nerves. The push and pull between the traditional images of intercourse (or romance ) and the seemingly disconnected ones builds the tension, drawing the reader in. Not only is the tension palpable because clearly these things don’t belong together, but also because they are of man, either parts of a human or made by a human, thus pulling the human imperfection back into the love poem. The human imperfection is also highlighted when Covey mentioned a migraine: a purely human, purely awful thing. He’s wishing to keep it at bay, yes, but the fact that it’s in the poem at all only reinforces the humanness of the person for whom he’s written, the love interest.
Red hearts full of candy and Hallmark cards and roses are not material for poetry unless they are consumed to fuel something stronger. Just like that first, all encompassing, supposedly perfect but never really is ‘love.’ No love is perfect, people aren’t perfect, and once the first heartbreak is gone, we can move on and understand ‘love’ as a real life emotion isn’t of an idealized one. That’s why love poems need tension and why readers have no interest (or pretend a polite interest) in the blundering of heart felt but painfully sweet borderline worship poems. They aren’t real.
Sarah Ockershausen Delp