Poetry occupies a cultural space in contemporary American society somewhere between tap dancing and ventriloquism. People are certainly aware that poetry exists, but this awareness comes upon them only vaguely and in passing moments. When people think of a poet, perhaps they imagine the finger-snapping beret-wearing beatnik. Or the slammy mike-wielding poet-ranter. Both are proud poetic traditions, but most people who write poetry are just like you. Scruffy, broken wordpals. In this age of Twitter, casual word-shaping may be at its all-time high. And as we attempt to fit all the meaning and emotion we can into a few short lines, no doubt Maya Angelou and Walt Whitman and Bashō are looking down from heaven and smiling. (I know Maya Angelou isn’t dead. She just lives in heaven.)
Love poetry has, of course, been with us since the beginning of time. Lame pickup lines were passé even in the Mesozoic era; we diminish ourselves with cheap dating gimmickry. And who would want to woo anyone who could be gotten so cheaply anyway? It’s the chase that’s the fun—and the poem is the map you use! To get to someone’s soul! (Excited trumpets!)
When is the right time in a relationship to present someone with a poem? The line between creepy and romantic is ever shifting. Some people might like a poem written about them at first, and then later come to find it creepy and taser you. Others might, upon first reading, feel creeped out and then later come to love the poem you wrote. You never know.
Love makes us put ourselves out there in crazy ways; it’s a roller-coaster with no safety restraints. It starts as a funny feeling in the stomach and then quickly goes on to flood the brain. Soon we’re constantly thinking about the objects of our affection, wondering what they look like without pants on, trying to remember their schedule at the yoga place. Poets actually know more about longing than they do about love. Poets fall in love with other people’s wives, people who don’t love them back. They’re human, in other words, and humans weren’t built for happiness. They were built for yearning.
So, what’s your story? For whom do you yearn? Could be your parole officer. Or the guy you hired to kill your ex. We generally are attracted to complication: people it might be impossible to pursue. As the great John Wieners wrote, “The poem does not lie to us. We lie under its law.” That’s the most important thing a poem can do: communicate capital T Truth to the reader. In this case to someone you think is pretty special. So make your Truth sound pretty good.
The first step is to stare at a blank piece of paper for a while. This is actually a helpful step. Like the way Michelangelo stared at a block of stone for a while and then figured out that there was a man with a strangely small penis inside of it.
How does one proceed from this blank page? There are easy ways to get started writing a love poem. And easy is the way to go. No one wants a really tangled and complicated poem written about them. Dante wrote about following Beatrice through Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, and he still never actually got to be with her.
One way to get started is to use the recipient’s name. Names are good. Find out what his or her name is and then write it down the page vertically, letter by letter: J-I-M B-E-H-R-L-E.
There is probably a word for this kind of poem. Acrostic. I just looked that up. So in the first line, start with a J word.
Just to let you know
Okay! You’re building up to something. So far so good.
Just to let you knowI think you are pretty cool
That’s good! Building on the I! Bringing yourself into it. Being direct!
Just to let you knowI think you are pretty coolMostly because of your ass
Humor! Excellent. You may not want to mention someone’s butt in the first stanza, or maybe at all. It just happens to be my finest feature, and I’m always glad when people have opinions about it. Safer things to mention when you don’t know somebody that well are hair, eyes, and elbows. Mouths, belly buttons, noses, ears, coccyges—anything that can be used during some kind of sex act—can be approached only metaphorically and with the greatest of caution when you’re writing for people who do not already know that you love them.
So let’s change that “ass” to “eyes,” which, on me, are also amazing. A kind of hazelnut wonderland of depth and swirling glint. I also have a very deep sexy voice. Those are my only good qualities. Then continue:
But even though your apartment is grossEverything about you is great.Hooray for you and the way you make me feel.Radiant, alive, like a baby bunny in honey.Listening to your sexy voice while your hazelnutEyes swallow me up like a McNugget.
The poem doesn’t need to be something that will be chiseled into the side of a building. It just has to be from you. Keep it simple. Sometimes we imagine that we have to say a lot to get people to like us, but remember that scene with Tom Cruise where he had her at hello? Most people are aching for love, dying to be loved, and perhaps only seconds away from leaping into your arms.
It’s a bad idea to attempt a poem unless you really do feel something about someone. If you’ve been together a long time and think writing a poem might rekindle things, go for it. Just be careful not to write a breakup poem, where you unconsciously bring up all the things you despise.
But even though you never wash the dishes andEverything stinks because the garbage is piled upHooray for you and the way you make me feel.Raunchy, covered in our waste products.Leery of your every move.Expecting to call a divorce attorney.
If the acrostic is not the thing for you, if the person’s name is, like, Xigglebewl or something, there are other perfectly lovely poetic forms you can use. NOT THE SESTINA. Those always come out forced and ridiculous and there are all these repeating words and it just never fucking works. All sestinas are terrible—name one that isn’t. Haikus are maybe too short. You always want to give love poem recipients a little meat to chew on, even when they are beautiful vegans lit from the inside by paramecium and gluten.
The sonnet is a delightful form. You can think of it like a puzzle. A crossword or a sudoku. Although rhyming is frowned upon in many snobby circles of elitist poets, you can rhyme if you want to. That’s what the modernists fought all their battles for: the right for poets of this age and every one going forward to do whatever the hell they want. Rhyme, don’t rhyme! You don’t need to be trendy. And don’t worry about it. Love makes us all act like awkward nerds. Which in turn makes us adorable and lovable.
Poetry is pretty much whatever you want to call a poem. It is more than just not-a-cartoon on a page of The New Yorker. And poetry isn’t about being judged or getting a genius grant or being remembered for all eternity. Writing a poem could just be about making other people think about art for a second instead of, I don’t know, work and money and troubles. Even if you never get a genius grant, you still might get laid or loved or even liked. And you might make someone’s day. It’s nice to have poems written about you, especially if the poems are interesting and alluring.
How many poems about how great you are ended up in your in-box today? Don’t you wish there was at least one? Yeah. So do I.
Jim Behrle is a Brooklyn-based writer who tweets at @behrle for your amusement. Excerpted from The Awl (Sept. 27, 2011), a website that “intends to encourage a daily discussion of the issues of the day—news, politics, culture (and TV!)—during sensible hours of the working week.” www.theawl.com
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.