How to write a love poem (without barfing)

There's one thing you should know.

From the opening of Mr. Bridge, the 1969 book by Evan S. Connell:

Often he thought: My life did not begin until I knew her.

She would like to hear this, he was sure, but he did not know how to tell her. In the extremity of passion he cried out in a frantic voice: "I love you!" yet even these words were unsatisfactory. He wished for something else to say. He needed to let her know how deeply he felt her presence while they were lying together during the night, as well as each morning when they awoke and in the evening when he came home. However, he could think of nothing appropriate.

So the years passed, they had three children and accustomed themselves to a life together, and eventually Mr. Bridge decided that his wife should expect nothing more of him. After all, he was an attorney rather than a poet; he could never pretend to be what he was not.

It simply isn't true, Mr. Bridge. As Plato said, at the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet. And I have one piece of advice that will save you a headache while writing: Don't try to make it rhyme.

Let's make it bigger:

Don't try to make it rhyme.

As Plato said, at the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet. And I have one piece of poetry-writing advice that will save you a headache.

The important thing for non-self-identifying poets to understand is that not all poetry rhymes. In fact, most poetry does not rhyme, and when you force it, you wind up with verses comparing love and gloves, and who can think of gloves in this age without conjuring O.J. Simpson? (Though, there's a great argument for rhyming's lasting effect: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.")

A love poem is a thoughtful piece of writing to gift to a treasured one, and as long as it comes from the heart (aww), it'll be appreciated. (And if it isn't, well, at least he or she can buy a cup of coffee with it.) I've composed many love poems and wedding toasts for others -- and I'm glad to help you, too; let's chat! -- but I believe in you. You can do it.

Now that you're relieved of writing a sonnet (a 14-line poem with a strict rhyme scheme, most commonly associated with William Shakespeare), let's take a look at a few forms of poetry that may be the right fit for expressing your passion.

Acrostic

We've all written an acrostic poem: Teachers have us do this in shaky script for Mother's Day and Father's Day then tape our arty poems to the primary school wall. An acrostic is a poem in which the first letter of each line spells a word. We start simple:

Most
Operatic
Mother

Doesn't make much sense, right? The grown-up version is a little more challenging in that each horizontal line should make sense, the lines working together as a whole. Lewis Carroll's "A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky" spells out Alice Pleasance Liddell: the inspiration behind his most famous book.

Haiku

If you're pressed for time -- say, you needed that poem by today, oops -- then a haiku is where it's at for you. It's a traditional Japanese three-line poem in which each line has a specific number of syllables: 5, 7, 5:

Love means asking him,
"Do you think it smells in the
Refrigerator?"

My best suggestion for writing a haiku? Start with the last line. It's easiest to find a five-syllable word and work backwards from there. It's why a lot of my haikus are about refrigerators as well as why I don't give them as gifts. But that's just me.

Cinquain

A cinquain is a stepping stone between a haiku and free verse. It's a five-line poem with a set syllable pattern (2, 4, 6, 8, 2), yet it reads a little freer. Here's Adelaide Crapsey's "Anguish":

Keep thou
Thy tearless watch
All night but when blue-dawn
Breathes on the silver moon, then weep!
Then weep!

I do enjoy cinquains, though they make me think of a poetry reading with berets and men with thin mustaches snapping their fingertips in appreciation. They're short and sweet like a haiku while feeling a little more solid and time-consuming.

Free verse

These are the most common poems written today and the type of poem I recommend writing after you've knocked a cinquain out of the park. There's no rhyme scheme and typically no foot (syllables that are stressed or unstressed beats) or meter (the pattern of foot beats). Here's a Gregory Corso free verse I like called "Dear Girl":

With people conformed
Away from pre-raphaelite furniture
With no promise but that of Japanese sparsity
I take up house
Ready to eat with you and sleep with you

But when the conquered spirit breaks free
And indicates a new light
Who'll take care of the cats?

Notice how it reads like a person simply talking? Free verse takes the pressure off: The lines don't have to rhyme, you don't need a certain number of beats and no one's likely to tell you what you've written isn't a poem. Because, really, who are they to say? You're the poet here. You know what's up.

Sestina

My hat's off to you if you're a first-time poet wanting to tackle a sestina. You can do it! Once you work out the puzzle, it's but a brain teaser to figure out your stanzas (WHICH STILL DON'T HAVE TO RHYME, HOLLA).

A sestina is a complex 39-line poem -- six stanzas of six lines each and one stanza of three lines -- in which the last words of the first stanza are repeated in a pattern. That pattern is:

Sestina form

If that pattern itself makes you want to barf, hold on! I'll show you this form in action, and pay attention to the last word of each line to notice how they rotate stanza to stanza and then in the envoi, the three lines at the end. (I'll label them so your head doesn't start throbbing.) Here's one of mine:

It’s absurd to love me, but don’t leave. (A)
Alone, I’m but chalk drawings in April (B)
After rain wipes out children’s messages. (C)
I’ve always wanted a bathtub that stands on four feet (D)
So we could travel the rooms while getting clean. (D)
The bed’s too small, but night’s too big without you. (F)

All my weekend dance cards are full of you. (F)
Your hairs on my pillow should never leave (A)
Their place upon the pillow tops, so clean (E)
To protect your allergies in April. (B)
You’re the only one to use my feet (D)
As a memo pad for messages. (C)

I speak in mix tapes and mixed messages (C)
And always make it difficult for you. (F)
I say I hate my outlook and my feet, (D)
Trying to give you an excuse to leave. (A)
The distance almost washed us out last April, (B)
But you’re here now, and our minds should be clean. (E)

Partners in crime in love in a bathtub clean, (E)
Underwater mouthing cryptic messages. (C)
Guess what I said, guess what I said, April (B)
Will mark almost two years for me and you. (F)
“Kiss me, Kate,” he said, “I’ll never leave. (A)
Who would wash your back in a tub on four feet?” (D)

If I played piano with my feet (D)
And I kept my mouth and word choice clean, (E)
Would my uniqueness prevent your leave? (A)
Brief refrigerator messages (C)
Read “Tonight” in that penscript of you (F)
Who make the word “apple” look like “April.” (B)

You’re brimming with mystery. April (B)
Fool’s Day takes advantage of clay feet, (D)
My weakness orbiting about you. (F)
I sink beneath bathwater to wash clean (E)
Haunting, never-ending messages (C)
Warning me that you’re about to leave. (A)

I’d offer you April to escape clean, (B) (D)
Yet my feet are tapping messages (D) (C)
Disclosing you won’t be the one to leave. (F) (A)

You know in the end (and you know you know) that there's no formula for expressing love. Your partner or parent or child or whomever's lucky enough to have an original piece of your writing will be pleased no matter what.

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