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Everything But

Creating tension in love poetry.
John William Godward, "The Love Letter"

Literature is born of conflict—as Faulkner said, “[t]he human heart in conflict with itself.” This presents a problem when one wants to write a love poem, as love works best when it’s light on conflict. “I love you, you love me”; that makes for good times and bad verse.

Of course, sometimes the situation in which the lovers find themselves is conflicted, and when this is the case, the writer can utilize the natural tension in the narrative. This situational conflict between lovers can be considered “but” poetry, as in “I love you, but you love someone else.”

For an example—or 366 of them—check out Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura, the fair-haired beauty. He spent his life crafting encomiums to her, despite the fact that he never spoke to her, and she was married and, eventually, the mother of 11.

The second “but”? “I love you, but you hate me.” For an example, here’s Richard Brautigan’s “I Feel Horrible. She Doesn’t”:

I feel horrible. She doesn’t
love me and I wander around
the house like a sewing machine
that’s just finished sewing
a turd to a garbage can lid.

Even more extreme is our third “but”: “I love you, but you are dead.”

Of the countless poems in this category, I’ll direct you to those written by Jack Gilbert in The Great Fires, such as “Michiko Dead.” This 13-line poem is an extended metaphor that is established solely through the title; Michiko—presumably the speaker’s love—is never mentioned again. Instead, we are presented with the struggles of a man “carrying a box / that is too heavy, first with his arms / underneath.” But the man’s arms tire, so he changes his grip, which “makes different muscles take over.” He carries the box against his chest, then on his shoulder, “until the blood / drains out of the arm that is stretched up / to steady the box and the arm goes numb.” Never in the poem does the box carrier contemplate setting the box down; we recollect the title and understand that the heavy load he is doomed to carry is the knowledge that Michiko is dead. Even after the blood has drained out of his arm, he has no choice but to find a new way to manage. What a grim thing passes for hope in the poem’s conclusion: “But now / the man can hold underneath again, so that / he can go on without ever putting the box down.”

The tension in each of those three stances—you love another, you hate me, you’re dead—is situational. But what about the poetry of requited love, that boring miracle, that miraculous boredom? In a discussion on love poetry, Rebecca Hoogs once said: “A good love poem lives in a tense state.… ‘I love you, you’re perfect,’ no matter how prettily said, is boring.” She’s right. So the writer must work to create tension, to avoid creating boredom.

One strategy is to capitalize on the tension already found in poetic forms. Of course, any form that has been around a few hundred years drags with it the stale conventions of expression of the last few hundred years, especially with a subject as trite as love. Perhaps this is why many of the best formal love poems of the last 40 years seem to be exploring homosexual love. Rafael Campo, Marilyn Hacker, Richard Siken—these poets’ love poems still seem risky. Here’s one I admire by Randall Mann, called “Pantoum.” It uses that slowest stutter of poetic forms, one in which, write Mark Strand and Eavan Boland in The Making of a Poem, “[t]he reader takes four steps forward, then two back.” In Mann’s pantoum, the love is without conflict, but the way the love fits into society is not. The poem concerns itself with the lack of acceptable terms for same-sex partners—the speaker considers boyfriend, partner, lover, roommate, and friend, and finds them all lacking. The awkwardness of language creates an awkwardness in the relationship, for there is a crack in the overlay of human language and human experience. It begins:

If there is a word in the lexicon of love,
it will not declare itself.
The nature of words is to fail
men who fall in love with men.

The men fall through this crack and are left with little choice then but to “rarely speak of one another,” though the silence will exact a toll on the relationship. The incremental roll of the pantoum is in tension with the stagnant state of societal acceptance and the love that seems to be regressing as the poem reaches its completion. Conflict has been achieved, and quite movingly.

For the last 500 years, the love poem has frequently found its shape in the sonnet—no accident, I believe, as the sonnet’s very form creates conflict with the octave/sestet imbalance, an off-center disorientation that enacts pressure and release. John Berryman makes use of this in his tension in his “Sonnet 13.”

If one possesses outside knowledge of Berryman’s Sonnets, one knows that the sequence explores an adulterous love affair with a woman he calls “Lise,” the wife of a friend. We have our “but”: “I love you, but we are both married to other people.” Yet this poem’s tension doesn’t rest on that larger fact, and we can admire the other forms of tension Berryman employs. To the tension of the sonnet he adds the tension created by inverted syntax—our own need to decode his word scramble, an effort most strenuous at the start. He begins, “I lift—lift you five States away your glass.” The “you” is not mentioned again in the octave. Instead, the speaker adumbrates the setting, which, after we flip enough double negatives, we understand as a seedy bar. He holds himself apart from the other drinkers and stresses that he doesn’t share their experiences. This bar is a place “where none / Ever I know came,” and he makes no effort to engage with the other customers. He doesn’t know what kind of work these men do, and doesn’t try to imagine. Further, he doesn’t recognize any of the cars that drive by or the songs on the jukebox. To compound his alienation, it’s raining—“Soiled hangs the rag of day out over this town.” His wry isolation is so detailed one suspects he enjoys it. The final insult to his sensitivities is the fact that the “spruce barkeep sports a toupee alas.”

The sestet’s opening feels direct and affective after the blowsy self-pity and cranky inversions that precede it. Berryman repeats the opening sentiment, more plainly—“My glass I lift at six o’clock” —and now adds “my darling,” identifying the addressee for the first time. He continues, “as you plotted …,” which allows us to guess that the speaker and his states-away lover have prearranged to toast each other. Now we understand the speaker’s dire survey of his environment; he stresses his aloneness in order to prepare us for its reversal. The lovers are in different locations—“We shared today not even filthy weather.” They are perhaps even in different time zones—“Chinese couples shift in bed,” he notes, suggesting both that he is not coupling and that he is out of sync with the turning world. Even nonhuman animals are enjoying companionship unavailable to him: “Beasts in the hills their tigerish love are snarling.”

Yet, thanks to this preordained moment, the speaker and his lover find communion. Impatient for exactly 6 p.m., he takes a last drag of his cigarette and, as he blows his “short ash red,” the reflection appears in her eyes: “Grey eyes light!” he states, “and we have our drink together.” With this, their experiences align, and the syntax, too, aligns, and the rhymes chime as neatly as the lips of two glasses. Further, the sentence aligns with the line breaks. Berryman’s octave is half-enjambed but all of the sestet is end-stopped, first setting up and then releasing the tension that the speaker experiences waiting for the clock hands to reach their verticals and for the brown liquor to pour down his throat. Ah.

So we’ve admired a pantoum and a sonnet. How about tension in a free-verse love poem? Here we might turn to Carolyn Creedon’s strange and wonderful “Litany." It’s girded by the strong formal element of the question-and-answer—the question creating tension and the answer releasing it. One feels that the antecedent to this Q & A is not so much the ballad or the call and response of African American spirituals as the storybook magic of books such as Guess How Much I Love You. There’s one crucial difference—when Little Nutbrown Hare asks his mother, “Guess how much I love you?,” he learns that no matter how extreme his proclamation, the mother will always exceed it. Even when he claims, “I love you right up to the MOON,” Big Nutbrown Hare can top him: “I love you right up to the moon—AND BACK.”

Creedon’s questions are variations of “How much do you love me?” The poem begins, “Tom, will you let me love you in your restaurant?,” and he answers, “I will let you make me a sandwich of your invention and I will eat it and call / it a carolyn sandwich.” There is all the predictable love apparatus here—“promise me you’ll hold tight” and “we will tangle up / on your comforter.” But as we proceed, we find that Tom’s answers aren’t nearly as predictable as Big Nutbrown Hare’s. When the speaker asks, “Tom, can we make a baby together? I want to be a big pregnant woman with a / loved face and give you a squalling red daughter,” he answers, “No, but I will come inside you and you will be my daughter.” There is just enough slippage between the question and the answer that we feel that there is love, but an unsettling one. The last stanza’s answer raises its own questions, especially as it is the poem’s only couplet, and we feel that something has been truncated, left dangerously unsaid.

Okay, there remains a little situation conflict in Creedon’s poem. So let’s remove even the hint of a “but.” Let’s consider the most boring kind of love—the everyday love of long-married heterosexuals. Can it have any pull, any play? In answer, read Alicia Ostriker’s tiny poem “Years,” in which she begins by considering some of the extremes a long marriage can provide: “I have broken into you like a burglar / And you’ve set your dogs on me.” But at the end she takes a more moderate estimation of the institution with “Strong and warm, that summer wind.”

At this point I feel I must confess my own selfish interest in the poetry of “no buts.” For half my life I’ve been luckily and stupidly in love, and the man I love is, inconveniently enough for my poetry, my husband. I’ve written love poems for him for 20 years now, each time facing the problem of creating tension that doesn’t arise from a conflict between the lovers. It’s a problem that I hope plagues me the rest of my days.

  • Beth Ann Fennelly teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at the University of Mississippi. Her first book of poetry, Open House, won the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and was a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick. It was reissued by W.W. Norton in 2009....


Everything But

Creating tension in love poetry.
  • Beth Ann Fennelly teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at the University of Mississippi. Her first book of poetry, Open House, won the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and was a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick. It was reissued by W.W. Norton in 2009....

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