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How to write love poetry
By BBC Maestro
Whether you want to surprise your significant other with a poem from the heart on Valentine’s Day, or want to add an extra special touch to your wedding vows, writing your own love poem is the perfect way to do it.
Read on for an essential guide on how to write love poetry from the heart, with some beautiful insights from former Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.
What makes a good love poem?
Love is one of the most common themes for poetry, but it can also be one of the trickiest topics to get right. How do you write love poetry that resonates without being too sappy? How can you express true emotion while avoiding clichés? Here are our three key elements of a good love poem.
It might be difficult to get right, but sincere emotion that avoids cliché is what elevates love poetry from run-of-the-mill to something spectacular. Carol Ann Duffy reflects on this in her BBC Maestro course, Writing Poetry. She says:
“The love poem is the most challenging poem to write because there’s the danger of cliché, the danger of tipping slightly into sentimental song lyrics. How do we avoid cliché in the love poem?”
Her solution for avoiding cliché? To be aware of it when you’re crafting your poem. That means, firstly, that you need to know what the clichés are when it comes to love poems. Reading widely should help you to become aware of the tropes used when talking about love, like the famous ‘roses are red, violets are blue’.
Knowing what the clichés are, then, can help you to avoid them in your own poetry. She advises to always be conscious of the words you’re using, saying:
“Scrutinise your poems, don’t go for the obvious, the first phrase that comes to mind. Or if you do use a cliché, revitalise it. Alertness to the words you’re using to construct the poem is essential.”
Looking at love through an unorthodox lens may also help you to avoid the predictable. Rather than comparing the object of your affection to a rose, for example, you could think of a different emblem for your love.
Carol Ann Duffy does this in her poem Valentine, in which she gifts her significant other an onion. The opening stanzas read:
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
The poem highlights both the good and bad parts of an intense relationship through one central extended metaphor, an unusual Valentine’s gift of an onion. Various aspects of love and relationships are explored through the onion, giving a perspective that is, perhaps, more realistic than – as Duffy says herself in the poem – “a cute card or a kissogram”.
Explore the universal
Another thing that makes a love poem stand out is when it’s relatable to readers. Most love poems are written with a specific person in mind, and often refer to details that are unique to them. However, they resonate with readers because they also look beyond the specific to universal themes which almost anyone who has loved or lost can relate to.
Take the poem When you go by former Scots Makar, Edwin Morgan:
When you go,
if you go,
And I should want to die,
there's nothing I'd be saved by
more than the time
you fell asleep in my arms
in a trust so gentle
I let the darkening room
drink up the evening, till
rest, or the new rain
lightly roused you awake.
I asked if you heard the rain in your dream
and half dreaming still you only said, I love you.
It's a short poem and undoubtedly calls upon Morgan’s own experiences, but there’s a universality of experience – the remembering of a quiet, peaceful moment with a loved one after they’re gone – that anyone can relate to.
Carol Ann Duffy encourages you to draw upon your experiences when writing love poetry, while being mindful that it should also appeal to a broader audience. She says: “It doesn’t matter if you refer to a particular incident, as long as you’re confident that all lovers could relate to that poem.” One way to connect these individual experiences to universal emotions is with poetic devices like imagery and alliteration.
“Nowhere are our senses more acute,” Carol Ann Duffy says, “than when we fall in love. We undergo a literal chemical change in our bodies: we produce oxytocin, the love hormone. The poetry equivalent of oxytocin is the love poem.”
The best love poems, then, plays on these heightened emotions with hyperbole and inventive language – or, conversely, they focus in on minute details or everyday events that are completely ordinary but, when in love, seem magical.
Take Carol Ann Duffy’s Tea, for instance. In this poem, she describes the very simple act of making a cup of tea for her loved one, as seen in the opening two stanzas:
I like pouring your tea, lifting
the heavy pot, and tipping it up,
so the fragrant liquid streams in your china cup.
Or when you’re away, or at work,
I like to think of your cupped hands as you sip,
as you sip, of the faint half-smile of your lips.
It highlights the heightened experience of love, even in the most everyday of acts. As Duffy explains:
“When we’re in love, we love to do ordinary things. They seem miraculous. We bestow upon the beloved a glamour, a magic that they don’t actually possess, but they do in our heightened state.”
She encourages you to explore language to match those elevated experiences, whether that’s through an exploration of the everyday as in Tea, or through a more elaborate declaration of love, as in Robert Burns’ famous poem, A Red, Red Rose in which he declares everlasting love that will endure even when the couple are separated. The opening two stanzas of that poem read:
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair are thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my Dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
In Tea and A Red, Red Rose, we have two quite different poems that approach love in two very different ways, but each shows how heightened language and the use of imagery can reflect the heightened experience of being in love and resonate with the reader.
How to write a love poem
Authenticity, universality, and heightened senses. These are three key ingredients of the perfect love poem, but how can you write your own? Here are our top tips.
1. Think of a subject
Think about who or what you’re writing about, and what emotions you’re trying to convey. You might find it helpful to draw a mind map or simply jot some ideas down on a piece of paper to get your imagination going. Whether you want to express passion, hope, joy, beauty or even heartbreak and the sadness of love, this will help to form the basis of your poem.
2. Decide on a form
You could go traditional and write a sonnet, or you could play with free verse. Working within an established form, like a sonnet or blank verse, might be useful to guide you – or you might prefer to let your words pour out, unencumbered by poetic conventions. Not sure which to use? Don’t worry, you can always experiment with different poetic forms until you find the one that best fits your subject and poetic style.
3. Choose your words
As we mentioned before, the best love poems use heightened language to convey the heightened senses that come with love. You might express this through exaggerated language and hyperbole, or through more subtle literary techniques like anaphora and epistrophe.
4. Consider imagery and symbolism
Part of the decisions you’ll make around language will be around what imagery to use in your poetry. Most love poems do include some sort of imagery, whether it’s the extended metaphor of the onion in Valentine, or the comparison to a summer’s day in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18. As Carol Ann Duffy says, “We experience the world physically and we must never forget to bring our senses into our language.”
5. Be yourself
We’ve spoken about crafting poems that have universal appeal but often, the best love poems are inspired by first hand experiences. They may mention details specific to the poet’s beloved, but it’s the honesty and truthfulness of them that ensure they’re resonant with a wide audience. So, don’t be afraid to write from the heart, be a little vulnerable, and draw upon your own personal experiences and emotions when writing a love poem – especially if you’re dedicating it to a particular person for a special occasion.
Hopefully, these tips will get you started with writing your own love poetry. Look out for inspiration in the everyday, draw upon your own experiences and we’re sure that your poems will resonate.
Want to find out more about how to write poetry? Subscribe to Carol Ann Duffy’s BBC Maestro course, Writing Poetry, and learn how to draw upon your own experiences, play around with metre and rhyme, and find your unique voice.