"Poets don’t write love poetry anymore.”
I sat in the audience at the lecture hall of my college and listened. I was taking a creative writing class and the professor had invited the class to come and listen to a poet read his poems and talk about the writing of poetry and the publishing of books of poetry. All subjects of great interest to poets and to very few others, I dare say.
The poet stood on the stage and spoke to this group of aspiring writers about what it was like to be a writer. Now mind you, it has been some twenty-odd years since this night. I am now a published poet myself and a creative writing teacher, as well. You see, most writers teach to support their writing habit.
Now, over twenty years later, I only remember one thing that this poet said. I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember his poetry. I just remember one sentence.
“Poets don’t write love poetry anymore.”
This line has stuck with me over the years. I write love poems. The other students in my class wrote love poems. Every High School and College girl taking an intro to Creative Writing class writes nothing but love poems.
But that wasn’t what I wanted to be. I wasn’t a Nursing or Early Childhood Education major, someone with a solid, planned vocation lined up, who was taking a creative writing class as a fun elective. I was a writer. I wasn’t writing just for fun. I was writing to get published. I was writing to reach an audience. I was writing to connect with people.
I thought about my favorite modern poets. A quick flip through Billy Collins’ books will show you that you would have to stretch to find anything that resembled a love poem. “Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes” has a love poem quality to it. But, no, it is not a love poem. And I might argue that “The Flight of the Reader” is my favorite love poem of all time, but a poem that a poet writes to anonymous readers can hardly be considered traditional love poetry.
This attack on love poems continued. As an undergraduate, I was told to spice up my poetry more. Sex sells. Love, not so much. In Graduate School, it was politics that they wanted to see. All I saw was privileged, sheltered college students writing about things they read about in Newspapers, but had never experienced. I didn’t understand the power of writing about something you knew nothing about.
My years of sitting in a circle in writing workshop after writing workshop, more than anything, taught me what not to do when finally, I ran my own creative class. There were a few exceptions. René Steinke, Jan Heller Levi and Donna Masani, even if we didn’t always see eye to eye, the things I learned at the round tables where you sat shaped not only the writer I would become and will forever be becoming but also the person I am. The ways in which Professor Steinke changed the course of my life and influenced who I would become could not be overstated and I can only hope to ever have even half that influence on my own students.
But largely, these classes taught me what I needed to do differently. I learned that you have to critique without criticizing. That no one can transition from writing student to writer if they don’t trust their own voice. And, above all else, even when I’m the one teaching, when it comes to creative writing, the teacher isn’t always right and there is never only one way to write.
The phrase I say most often as a creative writing teacher is, “I trust you.” Want to go over or under the school’s required word count? “I trust you.” Want to do a completely different assignment? “I trust you.” Want to record yourself reading rather than handing in written work? “I trust you.” Want to write about something you think you “shouldn’t” write about? “I trust you.”
So, what does this have to do with love poems, you ask? (You probably forgot that we were even talking about love poems.) Writers want to write love poems. Writing students are told that they shouldn’t. What no one talks about is that readers want to read love poems. Love is a universal emotion. We have all felt it. Falling in it, craving it, losing it. Everyone has some relationship with love. It may be passionate, platonic, familial, unrequited, or just plain crazy, but we have all felt it. Yet we are told not to write about it.
Well, I am here as your unofficial creative writing teacher to tell you to write those love poems. You know what the number one rule of writing is? Well, it’s actually, “show, don’t tell.” But the number two rule of writing is, “write what you know.” Writing is about communicating with another person across time and space. Making a stranger feel as if you are their best friend, as if no one has ever understood them so well. No one should limit the ways in which that is done.
An ironic thing that I discovered when I finally worked up the nerve to start putting my own writing into the world and submitting my poetry for publication is that the poems that I thought editors would like, the poems about pain and politics, the poems about the things that I was supposed to write about, that people were supposed to care about, were not the ones that editors wanted to publish. They weren’t the poems that resonated with people. They weren’t the poems that readers loved.
People loved the love poems. The poems about heartache. The poems about longing. The poems about the fear, the joy, the loss, of love. The poems I had been told all of my life not to write. But true poets are, if nothing else, rebels. Even amongst other writers and artists, it is poets who break the most rules. Poets who are constantly changing the game. And poets, who, when the muse orders it, still sit down, pen in hand, and return to the old, the outdated, the sometimes corny, often cliché, but always relatable – love poem.