How to write a love poem that’s not a cliché
Most of the world’s greatest poetry is on the same topic: love. It is an idea poets return to over and over – and for good reason. There are few human experiences more all-consuming, exciting or painful as love.
But with so many poems about love, it can be hard to find a new angle or an original mode of expression. It is easy to slip into cliché – flowers opening, comparing a new lover’s skin to the moon, grandiose statements about unrequited love being worse than death. Roses are red, violets are blue … these kinds of poem are nothing new.
So how can a poet write about love without being a complete cliché?
Well, even though it seems counter-intuitive, one of the best ways to do this is to turn to some of the masters of love poetry and see how they approached writing love poems.
The Real Romantics
It seems obvious that the Romantic poets wrote a lot about love. But their name comes from the fact they were writing within the Romantic era, a broader artistic movement that was a reaction against the hard-line logic of enlightenment. They emphasised emotion and glorification of nature – in other words, they wrote about their feelings. A lot.
Lord George Byron was perhaps one of the most famous Romantic poets – and not just because of his eccentric lifestyle (he drank wine out of a skull his gardener had found in the grounds of his home Newstead Abbey). But despite his faults, he could write a great romantic poem. ‘She walks in beauty’ is a surprisingly understated, delicate love poem. It opens:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Part of what makes these lines beautiful is that they are controlled. There are no exclamations, no heavy words, and not a single reference to flowers. Comparing a lover to stars could definitely be a cliché, but here Byron approaches it in an interesting way – his lover walks in a way that resembles the beauty of a starry sky, an indirect simile instead of a straight comparison. This is one way of incorporating an image into a poem in a way that is fresh, when it could have become a clunky and overused sentiment.
The poet e. e. cummings is best known for his free-style, experimental poetry. His modernist poems and unconventional style often produced strange results. But he also shows us how we can use language to make what would otherwise be a cliched sentiment into something new. In his poem ‘somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond’, cummings uses one of the most cliched images in love poetry: the flower. Take the following stanza:
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose
It is easy to see how this could have been a very unoriginal love poem. But cummings has approached the image of the rose in a strange way – the phrase ‘your slightest look will easily unclose me’ is a deeply felt sentiment, that he then twists into the metaphor of a flower at the end of the stanza. It’s about a very small moment producing deep feelings.
This is one of the most important things to remember about love poetry – it’s about reaching for sincere feelings, rather than grandiose statements. If you manage to capture a very small moment, then you will be forgiven for using a rose metaphor – because when handled well, and with nuance, even cliched images can take on a new life.
If you are interested in learning how write your own original love poems, join us at our upcoming workshop ‘Winter Warmer – Writing Love Poetry’ on Saturday 9 February 2019.