Ask the Expert

What’s the best way to write a love poem?

Katie Peterson, professor of the practice of poetry, suggests some heartfelt approaches
February 11, 2014

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Be direct. Think of this memorable first line from the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” You can’t get much better than that.

Avoid abstraction. Words such as “love,” “beauty,” and “hot hot sexiness” are like carbohydrates on the dinner plate. Use them sparingly. Instead, favor concrete descriptions, which are the leafy greens and lean proteins of language. Here’s Christina Rossetti, another Victorian: “My heart is like a singing bird,” she writes, then “My heart is like an apple-tree,” then “My heart is like a rainbow-shell,” and finally, at the end of the stanza, “Because my love has come to me.”

Praise extravagantly. Check out this exaltation that the contemporary American poet Maureen McLane adapted from the sixth-century Greek poet Sappho: “some say a host of horsemen, a horizon of ships under sail is most beautiful but I say it is whatever you love I say it is you.”

Photo: IngimageKnow that less is more. These lines from a Shakespeare sonnet, for all their drama, nevertheless seem intimate because the statement they make is so simple: “Being your slave, what should I do but tend / Upon the hours and times of your desire?”

Consider taking a risk. Here’s some straightforward seduction courtesy of the seventeenth-century poet John Donne: “To teach thee, I am naked first; why then, / What needst thou have more covering than a man?” And if you shrink from the thought of writing anything like that, reflect on Donne’s famous watchword: carpe diem. In other words, YOLO.

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