How to write a love poem

Wikimedia/National Gallery of Art

Hannah Copley, University of Westminster

For many, this year’s Valentine’s Day will be like no other. If you are spending the day apart from your loved ones, and don’t fancy the card selection at your local Tesco, writing a poem can be a more personal way to reach out and connect. Indeed, to paraphrase John Donne, “more than kisses, [poems] mingle souls”.

Here are some poems to take inspiration from, as well as some prompts to help you get that first line on the page.

Make a list

In her sonnet, How Do I Love Thee, Elizabeth Barrett Browning demonstrates the effectiveness of staying power when it comes to writing romance. After setting out to count the ways, the poem sticks determinedly to its opening concept – how do I love thee – answering the question from every possible angle, reaching to “the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach”.

Read more:
Poems for long distant loves in lockdown

How do I love thee demonstrates how incorporating a list within a poem can make for a persuasive and intimate piece of writing. We see this again, in an altogether sillier way, in Ways of Making Love, by Hera Lindsay Bird. In her poem, Bird unfolds a surprising and decidedly unsexy list of similes to “answer” the instructional title of the poem:

Like a metal detector detecting another metal detector.
Like two lonely scholars in the dark clefts of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Like an ancient star slowly getting sucked into a black hole.

Whether it’s heartfelt or more lighthearted, a list poem is an opportunity to remember the quirks that make up a relationship. Half prayer, half receipt, it can quantify the seemingly unquantifiable, as the need to find the next answer to the opening question forces you to think creatively and explore beyond the obvious.

Why not begin with a title like “Each Thing You Do”, and challenge yourself to at least forty lines. Or perhaps you might want to answer Barrett Browning’s original question in light of our 2021 reality:

I love you further than two metres;
I love you beyond the limits of my daily walk.

Embrace desire

Ways of Making Love might not live up to the eroticism of its title, but Selima Hill’s Desire’s a Desire certainly delivers:

It taunts me
like the muzzle of a gun;
it sinks into my soul like chilled honey
packed into the depths of treacherous wounds;

In this variation of the list poem, Hill takes longing as her starting point and recounts its effects in sensual, almost painful detail. Similarly, in Kim Addionzo’s For Desire, the poet celebrates what it is to want without restraint or guilt, whether that’s “the strongest cheese”, the “good wine”, or “the lover who yanks open the door / of his house and presses me to the wall”. In Fucking in Cornwall, Ella Frears embraces the less-than-glamorous realities of sex and desire:

The rain is thick and there’s half a rainbow
over the damp beach; just put your hand up my top.

It may not be the stuff of the big-budget period drama, but it’s joyful in its nostalgia for the awkward fumbling of first love, as well as of the rainy delights of the English seaside.

Each of these poems celebrates the power of declaring longing and need; of articulating the body and what it wants.

Be playful

Perhaps you’ll notice something familiar about the opening lines of Harryette Mullen’s Dim Lady:

My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin.

In this fast-paced ode, Mullen takes Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) — itself a parody — and effectively scribbles all over it. While she maintains the style of the original, she substitutes almost every word with a contemporary reference to mass consumer culture, rendering the whole declaration — and the love industry — joyfully ridiculous.

Dim Lady demonstrates the power of the re-write and celebrates the fact that poetry – like love – can be a playful and adaptable collaboration. Like the Zoom pub quiz and online escape room, Mullen’s word substitution is a game that can be played at whatever distance.

Why not each take Sonnet 130 and come up with your own versions using a different frame of reference. Types of plant? TV programmes? Biscuit brands? Then swap and compare results.

And remember, whatever style you decide to try this Valentine’s Day, keep in mind the poet Les Murray’s sage advice:

The best love poems are known
as such to the lovers alone.

When it comes to writing your own verse, remember, it’s the thought that counts.The Conversation

Hannah Copley, Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Westminster

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 ACU Prize for Poetry Winner

The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2020 ACU Prize for poetry, Geoff Page, for ‘Jericho.’

For more visit:

2020 Blake Poetry Prize Winner

The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2020 Blake Poetry Prize, Judith Nangala Crispin, for the poem ‘On Finding Charlotte in the Anthropological Record.’

For more visit:

‘A doubtful gleam of solace’: reading Tennyson’s In Memoriam AHH in difficult times

A portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
by Samuel Laurence and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, circa 1840.
Wikimedia Commons

Darius Sepehri, University of Sydney

In our series Art for Trying Times, authors nominate a work they turn to for solace or perspective during this pandemic.

In Memoriam AHH, cantos 27 & 28, read by Darius Sepehri.

Alfred Tennyson’s 1833 poem “Ulysses”, was, he tells us, written under a sense of loss — “that all had gone by but that still life must be fought out to the end.”

Dealing with the inertia created by grief, and the will needed to resist and move ahead, the poem perfectly expresses what St Paul called the “hope against hope”. Despite the heroism of the famous last line, (“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”), the poem’s defiance only makes sense in the light of the anguish animating it.

Tennyson’s book-length elegy In Memoriam AHH, published in 1850, once among the most popular poems in English, came out of the same sense that the whole world was over — not a world but the world — and yet life must be lived, somehow.

I experience In Memoriam as a soulful and provocative artwork, not a “relevant” one or one merely to be mined for therapeutic consolations.

Despite its formal control and elegance, and what we may hear as dated language, Tennyson’s long poem is tumultuous, chaotic, and not only personal but social, deeply connected with upheavals in Victorian society.

An 1851 edition of In Memoriam.

Read more:
Ode to the poem: why memorising poetry still matters for human connection


Both Victorian and modern in style and composition, In Memoriam uses extraordinarily passionate language, tightly compressed. Its passion is directed by Tennyson at another man, his friend Arthur Hallam, a brilliant philosopher. Tennyson and Hallam met at university. We know their first encounters were magnetic and catalysing.

When Hallam died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in Italy in 1833, aged 22, it violently changed Tennyson’s life.

Bust of Arthur Hallam by Francis Leggatt Chantrey.

Tennyson took 18 years to write In Memoriam. The prologue and epilogue attest to unshakeable faith in Christianity and in life’s continuity. The prologue’s first line addressed to “Strong Son of God, immortal Love”, and the last lines professing the eschatological completion of the world in “one far-off divine event/To which the whole creation moves”, could hardly seem more assured.

And yet. The 131 cantos in between these bookends trace an agonising journey into suffering, doubt, helplessness and the possibility of unredeemed pain that has no meaning or purpose. The rhetorical strength of some of these cantos is such that it puts the orthodox Christian position the poem professes elsewhere in serious question.

The way the poem tries to think through the many grand subjects it raises, such as if God cares for each individual being, creates a meandering journey, now confused, now suddenly clear. This feels right for grief.

Cantos 34 & 38 recited by Darius Sepehri.

The poem spirals around its ideas, rejecting clean linear progression, organised
around three Christmas sections (cantos 28, 78, and 104) of heightened feeling. Coming back and back to things, seemingly obsessed, Tennyson speaks of “a loss for ever new”. There is no “closure” of the wound. Can Christ really fill it? The world and its goods cannot.

I’ve committed many parts of In Memoriam to memory, made easier by the poem’s exceptionally memorable language (immortal, melodious phrases like “I loved the weight I had to bear/because it needed help of love”).

The poem’s form, entirely in quatrains of iambic tetrameter rhyming abba, composed in a long, ledger-like diary now kept at the British Museum, aids in memorisation.

Read more:
Explainer: poetic metre

I recite a selection of cantos here, and the famous “Ring Out Wild Bells” sequence, which charts a move from devastation to rebirth.

In Memoriam has an almost relentlessly regular meter, meant to recall biological processes such as the beat of the heart and breathing, organic processes that sustain life even as the poet’s being cries that life has ended.

All creation mourns

After Tennyson received a letter telling him Hallam’s remains were coming back by sea to Hallam’s family in England, he wrote the very first part of In Memoriam, calling the ship home: “Sphere all your lights around, above/Sleep, gentle heavens, before the prow/ Sleep, gentle winds, as he sleeps now.”

A hypnotic enchantment is created with the ship phosphorescent as it sails at night.

The poem connects something cosmic and transcendent with Tennyson’s own very private, enclosed grief. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, a film where the death of a young son is juxtaposed with grand existential and metaphysical questions that interrogate God, also aimed for such territory.

Tennyson with his wife Emily and sons, circa 1862. He named one of his sons Hallam.
Public Domain

Soulful ambiguity

“Dear friend, far off, my lost desire”, cries Tennyson. Today if a man speaks such excessive language of love to another man, we are likely to apply a defined identity or classification.

Read more:
Guide to the classics: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the complex life of the ‘poet of America’

Although modern readers may read Tennyson’s excessive professions of love for Hallam as homosexual, the nature of their relationship was unclear to Tennyson himself, and its expressions in keeping with Victorian sentimentality. He would have baulked at our collapsing of an entire world of feelings so complex.

In Memoriam testifies to the ineffability of human experience. Language is inadequate to capture its density and intensity.

Canto 5.

Tennyson was protective of the intensity of his feelings: hence the time he took to publish. He avoided the imperative to immediately display. Today we feel immense pressure to respond at once, in public, with clear stances, to make things transparent. Such transparency destroys soulfulness.

What makes our times so hard to bear are not just external circumstances themselves but the common ejection of mystery and suffering from art, and transcendence from consciousness.

In Memoriam dwells with the mysteries of being and death, mounts an impassioned defence of love and friendship, and — perhaps rarest of all — reminds us of something noble in the capacity to suffer for an ideal.

Tennyson’s lavish, excessive passion, his “tarrying with the negative” as Hegel put it, shows us how soulful art stirs us to life and staves off banality — but the cost must be paid.

Tennyson had a deep interest in Persian poetry through his friend Edward Fitzgerald (translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam).

He surely found something in Persian poetry’s insistence that grief and joy are inseparable and that death is not total loss, because nothing we feel passionately and soulfully is truly lost to us.The Conversation

Darius Sepehri, Doctoral Candidate, Comparative Literature, Religion and History of Philosophy, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chaucer’s great poem Troilus and Criseyde: perfect reading while under siege from a virus

Chaucer at the Court of Edward III by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893)

Stephanie Trigg, University of Melbourne

In our series Art for Trying Times, authors nominate a work they turn to for solace or perspective during this pandemic.

The Greeks are at the gates, and the city of Troy is under siege.

Every day, the Trojans ride out to do battle with Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax and the aggrieved husband Menelaus, whose wife Helen has been abducted by the Trojan prince Paris. But despite this crisis, the Trojan leisured classes carry on with their lives.

Read more:
Fall of Troy: the legend and the facts

One joyful spring morning, when the sun is shining and the meadows are filled with flowers, a beautiful young widow, Criseyde, sits in her palace, in a paved parlour with two other ladies, while a young maiden reads to them the story of another siege, that of the Greek city of Thebes.

This pleasant scene is interrupted by Criseyde’s uncle Pandarus, who is bringing the astonishing news that Paris’s younger brother Troilus has fallen in love with her.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his great romance Troilus and Criseyde around 1386. I teach this text every year in my honours class. It is long and difficult, and we normally spend half the semester working through the poem. Even then we don’t read it all in detail.

This year, the global pandemic brings a new context for reading this poem about a passionate but doomed love affair between two Trojans, conducted under siege conditions, in addition to all the constraints Chaucer’s very medieval lovers place around themselves.

A secret affair

Chaucer’s language in this text is rich and ornate, and the poem is written in a rhyming stanza whose syntax ranges from elegant to knotty. The narrative is both leisurely and intense.

It offers philosophical digressions about the nature of free will and predestination; but it is also full of intricate private meditations, and absorbing, intense conversations between the three main characters.

Book cover: medieval painting of couple


Nothing in the brutal rough and tumble of Shakespeare’s later play Troilus and Cressida can prepare you for the lyric drama of this poem.

Criseyde’s father has abandoned Troy and gone over to the Greek camp. She has been allowed to remain in Troy, but she is very vulnerable and fearful. The love affair must remain secret to protect her honour; Troilus and Criseyde cannot marry because he is a prince and she is the daughter of a traitor; and nor can they leave Troy and abandon their city.

They are also both overcome by shyness, dread, and reluctance to speak to each other. Indeed, the lovers do not exchange a single word until the beginning of the third book, and by the beginning of the fifth and final book they have parted, never to meet again.

Every year my students bring fresh insights to this poem’s emotional and cultural drama. Although I am on long service leave this semester, I am still conducting my annual reading of the poem on Zoom with a group of friends and colleagues.

Our Middle English Reading Group is made up of staff, present and former students, and members of a thriving community of scholars and lovers of medieval and early modern culture.

This year, reading together through Zoom offers a powerful contrast with Chaucer’s scene of medieval women’s communal reading.

Leisurely yet intense language fills rhyming stanza – all seven hours of them.

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Say what? How to improve virtual catch-ups, book groups and wine nights

Reading aloud

When Pandarus enters Criseyde’s paved parlour, where the maiden is reading from the book about the siege of Thebes, she greets him warmly and brings him to sit next to her. Hoping to turn her mood to thoughts of love, he asks what they are reading: is it a book about love? Is there anything he can learn?

Criseyde teases her uncle and when they have finished laughing she tells him where they are up to. She points to “thise lettres rede,” the rubricated or decoratively coloured chapter heading that introduces the next section.

Pandarus replies that he knows all about that sorrowful story but insists they should turn their thoughts to spring, as a prelude to introducing his news about Troilus. He invites her to dance but Criseyde recoils in horror. As a widow, she says, it would be better for her to live in a cave, to pray, and read the lives of the saints.

In typical Chaucerian fashion, this passage shows a female character’s awareness of what she might do, and perhaps should do, but does not.

Read more:
Guide to the classics: Homer’s Iliad

Unhappy endings

The domestic charms of this safe interior space, Pandarus’ fearful invitation, and the pleasures of reading and talking about familiar books distract us from the dreadful history lesson in the book they are reading. For just as Thebes was destroyed under siege, so too will Troy be.

Chaucer’s readers knew this; we know it; and even Criseyde’s father, a soothsayer, knows it: he has already abandoned Troy and gone over to the Greek camp, leaving her unprotected except for her uncle who is about to embroil her in the complexities of Trojan court politics.

Book cover: writer Chaucer


We know that this love story will turn out badly. In the very first stanza, Chaucer has told us the ending of the story: that Troilus will win Criseyde, but that she will forsake him.

Knowing the ending doesn’t affect our pleasure in this text. And so we read on, absorbed by Chaucer’s capacity to conjure the lives of others as they balance distress with hope, and external disaster with private joy.

Like the Trojans, we may not be able to learn from the past so as to avoid disaster. But Chaucer is forgiving, and offers us the seductive pleasures of reading and rereading, and the comfort of repetition.

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The Conversation

Stephanie Trigg, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor of English Literature, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ode to the poem: why memorising poetry still matters for human connection

Committing poetry to memory is so much more than a rote exercise.
Taylor Ann Wright/Unsplash

Veronica Alfano, Australian Catholic University

Memorising poetry was once common in classrooms. But it has, for the most part, gone out of style. There are good reasons for this.

Memorisation can clash with creativity and analytical thought. Rote learning can be seen as mindless, drone-like, something done without really thinking about why we’re doing it and what the thing we memorise might mean.

In other words, it can be counterproductive to learn a poem by heart without understanding its content, knowing anything about its author or historical context, or asking what specific aspects of its language make it powerful and appealing.

Literature instructors tend to focus more on showing students how to conduct careful textual analysis than on having them reproduce poetic lines word-for-word. Analytical skills are crucial, and educators should continue to emphasise them.

Read more:
Hooked on the classics: literature in the English curriculum

But there is great value in memorisation as well. Internalising a poem need not be a rote process. Done right, in fact, it is an intellectual exercise that illuminates the structure and logic of the text.

Nevermore, evermore, nothing more

A teacher might prompt his or her class to reflect on which patterns of sound (such as rhyme, meter or alliteration) serve as memory aids, asking how these patterns interact with the narrative arc of the poem.

Let’s imagine a student sets out to memorise Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

Here are two lines from that poem:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before

Someone searching for memorable patterns in the language would probably pay close attention to Poe’s internal rhyme: “uncertain” gives us “curtain,” and “thrilled me” prompts “filled me”.

But that same student might also struggle to keep the exact phrasing of the stanzas’ final lines straight, given that all eighteen of them conclude with “nevermore”, “evermore” or “nothing more”.

Most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears.
kalpesh patel/Unsplash

This could generate a conversation about the role of repetition in the poem – for instance, perhaps it reflects the obsessive and confused mindset of Poe’s speaker.

Students tasked with memorising poems are often required to speak them aloud as a test of mastery. This, too, has its benefits. Reciting a poem can provide a deep and visceral understanding of its linguistic strategies (think of all those rustling “s” sounds in “silken, sad, uncertain”).

Read more:
Victorian women poets of WW1: capturing the reverberations of loss

And when saying the poem aloud, you can hear another consciousness speaking in the cadences of your own voice. Counting out the beats of each line, you may feel the poem’s metrical pulses in your tapping fingers and toes.

In this way, the poem becomes an embodied experience and not merely a printed object.

A rich mental resource

True, reading a poem aloud rather than memorising and reciting it can have similar effects to all those above. But performing that poem without the distracting mediation of the page helps incorporate it more thoroughly into mental life.

In doing so, you can enact the way in which many poems – even as they give voice to a sensibility outside our own – also appeal to us precisely because they seem to articulate our unuttered thoughts and feelings. Reciting a poem without reading it can make it feel like it’s just you talking, not necessarily somebody else.

Memorising poetry provides a rich mental resource of beautiful phrases.
Daniel Hansen/Unsplash

Few of us have dealt with an ominous raven perching in our chambers, but most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears.

Memorising poetry, then, is also a kind of long-term investment. To take a poem with us so we can truly know it, we must know it by heart.

When we commit poems to memory, we internalise a voice that may comfort or inspire us in the future. We create a rich mental resource that lets us summon compelling, evocative, finely-crafted language at exactly the moment when it is most relevant to our emotional lives.

Such language both illuminates and is illuminated by our experiences. Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday” begins with these lines:

My heart is like a singing bird

Whose nest is in a watered shoot;

My heart is like an apple-tree

Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit.

For a school child who learns Rossetti’s poem, such metaphors may not be particularly meaningful. But if she carries those lines in her mind over the years, they are likely to take on fresh significance.

If later in life she falls in love or has an intense spiritual experience, they may help her articulate her feelings to herself. Perhaps on a snowy day she will think of Charles Wright’s words: “Things in a fall in a world of fall […]”.

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Perhaps the arrival of a child will remind the former student of Sylvia Plath’s “Love set you going like a fat gold watch”.

Understanding our own sentiments through someone else’s words can provide a thrilling sense of connection, of shared humanity across time and space.

There are certain intellectual advantages to having a wealth of information at our fingertips at all times. But the vast resources that smart phones provide can’t make the beauties and insights of poetic language part of our everyday perspective on the world and fine-tune our emotional vocabulary in the process.

For that, we must still memorise.The Conversation

Veronica Alfano, Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.