I assume I’ve always been incapable, that I was born without some romantic bone or with too many bad teen TV dramas. The truth is I consider myself a closeted romantic, a sucker for the good and pure Hallmark Christmas movies and ogling the elderly couples at the coffee shop. I hate weddings, not because I hate performative romance (I do), but because watching what is supposed to be a very intimate ceremony feels intrusive. Valentine’s Day brings up all kinds of personal conflicts.
I’ve tried writing love poems, and this is why I believe I’m incapable. They’re jaded and honestly a little sad (says more about my romantic history than my writing ability). I rely on other writers to write love poems on my behalf. People who are better at this than me — both love and writing — need to give me words for this junk.
I wish I could’ve told Paige Lewis this when I heard them read at the Stein Galleries on Wright State’s campus last spring. I confessed I write “Pavlov was the Son of a Priest” on just about every notebook I’ve used since it was published in Ploughshares two years ago, hoping it equated a profession of love. But since I also use the poem itself as an indirect profession of love, I only proved to myself that god love is hard to write about. Check out Paige’s tweet about the poem here since you can only read the digital version with a subscription.
It doesn’t start as a love poem. Honestly, I don’t know if everyone would consider it as such if it weren’t for the most quoted line (on Poet Twitter): “Now, I / demand a love that is stupid and beautiful, / like a pilot turning off her engines mid-flight // to listen for rain on wings.” Hallmark stories are simple because you know from the get-go they’ll be romantic, but the kicker is the characters don’t. The characters think they’re in a poem about Pavlov’s lineage or diamond thieves at the Smithsonian, then Twitter will throw that one romantic passage out like parade candy. Perhaps it is more romantic for the romance story to start as something else. Perhaps it is even more romantic to over-analyze the romance rather than try to write any yourself.
Thank god for secret romance poems, and thank god for more up-front This Is a Poem about Love poems. I need poets to write those on my behalf, too. Supposedly, writing about nonromantic love is a way to phase out the jaded-ness I’m guilty of. I still have a hard time understanding there’s a difference: I love my friends just like I do my partners and my family and my cat. I struggle glueing platonic declarations to a page. Yet another love poem I can’t write.
Chen Chen, to my mushy little secretly romantic heart, is the one to know regarding universal love poems. Love for the sake of love. Love for the plants and the puppies and the unending wish that everyone would just kiss already, especially the men. He writes of love that is gritty and mundane and includes the ugly parts. His love is all about the ugly parts. His poem “Maybe love is a tandem bike marathon up in the Adirondacks” (on page 38 of DUSSIE issue 19) frames itself as a work-in-progress, and feels more attainable to one who finds herself unable to write love poems: “Maybe I’m just trying to write a really good doing-it song, / & failing. But in that failing is something funky, // maybe worthy.” He is actively writing a love poem on behalf of others — it is a gift for us. And it’s a gift to the people he writes about: Keirkegaard and his grandmother and Björk.
At a morning poetry workshop hosted by Open Mouth in the fall, poet Ross Gay asked us to write questions we’d like to answer in our memoirs, then pair up with a stranger and ask them our questions. We used those answers to write a poem for our partner, and shared them with the group. Our prompt was to make a gift for someone else, not our own portfolios. I love what I make best when it’s for someone else. I’m most crafty during the holidays since I adopted my handmade gift philosophy. I tried to get the attention of the girl across from me, whom I didn’t know but pegged as a safe and non-intrusive writing partner, and inadvertently agreed to be Ross’s partner instead. Writing a poem for him was terrifying and beautiful, and I love the one I received in return more knowing it was for nothing but the gift itself.
I’m not saying this is how love poems should be written, I’m obviously not the authority on this. But I understand love better if I think of it as a gift rather than a portfolio builder. Paige didn’t read “Pavlov” at the Stein Galleries, instead chose more recent poems in their book Space Struck published this year. An audience member asked during the Q&A if they write their poems intending they be read aloud, or prefer read silently, and Paige couldn’t answer. I decided I preferred that one only be read silently, selfishly keeping that gift for myself.
I guess this holiday season I’m thinking more about the gifts I give and how they’re received. Or maybe I’m thinking of the gifts I took as gifts when they weren’t for me at all. Or maybe my complete inability to make these kinds of gifts for others. Basically, we should make and give more gifts. But I still need someone to write my love poems for me.