What do poets talk about when they talk about love? The first poem I ever wrote was a love poem. I was 14. I don’t remember any of the lines but I do remember it expressed a sickly, naive, messy soup of feelings. It was obsessional, devotional, incantatory – all those things that form a part of romantic love. Its emotions were outsized, its imagery floral and baroque. Very probably, the color of the addressee’s hair was compared to something in nature, and their complexion from her to a rose. The addressee was someone specific, with whom I was convinced I was in love. This would be embarrassing to admit – or at least more embarrassing – if it weren’t so commonplace. But penning love poems is one of the great human pastimes. They are central in the so-called canons of global literature. They’ve been around for as long as love itself, for as long as there has been language to describe love. Haven’t you written one, at some point?
My first love poem was addressed to someone, to “you”. More importantly, it was told through an “I”. It expressed feelings or emotions from a personal point of view – it was a lyric poem. These have their origins in antiquity and continue unabated today. Sappho circa 600BC: “You came and I was crazy for you / and you cooled my mind that burned with longing.” Lil Nas X in 2021: “Call me by your name / Tell me you love me in private / Call me by your name / I do not care if you’re lying.”
What poets talk about when they talk about love has little to do with the “you” and almost everything to do with the “I”; with the fantasies that the speaker of the poem has created and perilously, thrillingly projected on to the beloved. Lil Nas X freely admits that he does n’t much care about the subjectivity of his beloved de él – he cares about his personal fantasy of possessing, or being possessed by, the beloved. The poet Anne Carson summarises this in Eros the Bittersweet: “The people we love are never just as we desire them. The two symbols never perfectly match. Eros is in-between.”
Eros is poetic rocket fuel, the electric current that surges through and animates so much love poetry. It transforms that lyric “I” into an axis around which all love’s erratic, inconsistent feelings revolve: pleasure and pain, adoration and contempt, devotion and hatred. Carson explains that Eros is the reach of desire, and that this “involves every lover in an activity of the imagination.” The mid-century American poet Jack Spicer, whose work has recently enjoyed a renaissance, understood this intimately. His own Love Poems by him conclude: “Eros / Do that. / I give you my imaginary hand and you give / me your imaginary hand and we walk / together (in imagination) over the earthly ground.”
Eros also depends, entirely, on lack. To actually attain the beloved is to extinguish desire, to “cool the mind” as Sappho says. It is, possibly, to end the love poem altogether. Rachel Long neatly encapsulates this in Thanksgiving, from her debut collection. To keep her lover’s desire running, the speaker understands that she has to maintain an illusion of lack: “I will be so light / upon his life de el he wo n’t realize / he’s kept me.” Conversely, to lose or let go of the beloved is to pitch headlong, again, into Eros, a return where pain is redoubled. As Sharon Olds puts it: “I let him go, I lay and stretched on love’s / fucking stretcher.”
When I was 20, and still writing bad love poems, I was introduced to Richard Siken’s 2005 collection, Crush. It was actually loaned to me by a “crush” of my own. Siken’s poems, as the title suggests, are intoxicating and luscious, pulverising and shattering: “Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.” After returning the book to its owner, I’d look for Crush in bookstores, rereading the poems but never buying it. I still do this. It’s as though the book itself has assumed the characteristics of the beloved, in my imagination. To attain it might extinguish the charge the poems hold for me, might extinguish the memory of how and why I first came to read them.
What my crush and I loved about Crush, and why it remains a touchstone for today’s generation of love poets, is that the emotions Siken expresses feel so hard-hitting, so urgent. He writes how love and desire really feel. This is what we demand from a love poet. We task them with making love legible, with articulating the quicksilver of desire in a way that elucidates our own. And because what we feel is real, or authentic, the love poem must feel real and authentic, too.
But a poem is not some unfiltered explosion of feelings. It is carefully crafted: it is a performance. The lyric “I” is a selective, constructed “I” – the poet’s persona, offering up what Olds called the “apparently personal”. Like Vaseline smeared over the lens of a camera, this lyric “I” casts a weird aura over the poem, folding real life into reverie. To put it another way, we could think of the lyric “I” as a costume the poet wears while performing the poem. The task of the love poem is to perform well enough, authentically enough, that the reader does not dismiss its performance as shoddy artifice but instead allows it to work its magic on them.
Is this possible for a love poet today? As readers, we have our hackles up. Our current cultural moment is characterized by charlatanism. Truth and falsehood have become nonsense words, making the meaning of “reality” itself volatile. What’s more, the very language of love – of any emotion, for that matter – risks being cheapened by the forces of advertising and consumerism. I don’t mean the pat Hallmark-ification of love, or the consumerist excess of Valentine’s Day; I mean the deleterious, shapeshifting tactics through which late-stage capitalism dives love and other emotions of any meaning whatsoever.
Love today is fungible: it is McDonald’s and Cartier, and the heart-shaped button we tap on Twitter to feed data into the algorithm, spawning targeted ads. Corporations vow to “love” us, their customers; they vow to “care” about our struggles – provided we keep buying. And this is to say nothing of the Eros that lubricates the machine of capitalism itself, deployed to generate desire in the consumer. In this new terrain, can love correspond to anything real at there?
The insouciant, offhand poetry of Frank O’Hara remains hugely popular today, outshining many of his New York School contemporaries. A video of O’Hara reading his most famous love poem, Having a Coke With You, has racked up more than half a million views on YouTube. It’s typical of O’Hara’s love poems, which are conversational, casual and peppered with brand names and references to icons of American consumerism. As a poet, O’Hara was wise to an emerging confluence of affect and advertising, of the personal and the product.
Although his poems reflect an era of consumerism less steroidal than our own, and so feel cosily nostalgic or dewy-eyed, they hint at a solution to the love poet’s current bind. If love is denounced by the forces of capitalism, perhaps the task of the poet today is to integrate the language of capitalism into a new metaphorics of love. “I’m cranking out oodles of love / the way an old spaghetti machine / cranks out spaghetti / baby it’s hard work,” writes Emily Berry in The Old Fuel, brilliantly routing love, undiminished, through a metaphor in which affection is produced, and production is labour.
Maged Zaher, one of my favorite contemporary poets, elevates these concerns to a formal level. His poems by him are set in an itinerant world of offices, lunch hours and emails. In a Zaher poem, the syntactic and conceptual sense of an individual line is often undone by bearing no coherent relationship to a subsequent line. “Love in the frozen vegetables aisle / lap-dance security forces,” one poem begins. This technique mirrors the decay of language, the nonsense of corporate speak and political jargon, and the distracted, fitful exhaustion of life under the regime of a neoliberal economy. Love is repeatedly invoked in Zaher’s poems, but he lets it teeter between the possibilities of redemption and failure, sincerity and irony: “So what if you just ate an overpriced burger / It is love that will eventually make a difference.” In doing so, he creates an ambivalent iteration of the contemporary love poem where the reader is forced – or liberated – to decide for themselves whether or not love still has meaning.
When I ask myself what poets talk about when they talk about love – when I write my own love poems today – the lyric “I”, Eros, and the twisted language games of advanced capitalism are on my mind. Well, they’re in the junk shop in the back of my mind. My 14-year-old self’s ur-love poem is still rattling around in there, too, saccharine and rose-coloured. There’s something sustaining, or tenacious, about the memory of its adolescent ardor – something, perhaps, that argues for a fundamental unassailability of the heart of love.