Rabbit on Rhyme

Here’s something to mark Valentine’s Day. The late, great John Updike was asked in Esquire some years ago: How does one write a love poem? His response (no link available):

The first thing to acquire would be a rhyming dictionary. I use one bought in 1950, published by Permabooks. Its slick yellow covers have long since fallen off, but the rhymes are still there. Then you will need an anthology of love poems to see what the competition has done. You don’t want to palm off lines like “Come live with me and be my love” or “Go, lovely rose” as if they were your own, in case your loved one was an English major. Then equip yourself with a supply of heavy tinted stock–nobody likes to receive a love poem written on notebook paper with a row of torn holes along the margin. Dusty-rose or dove-gray are notoriously aphrodisiacal tints.

As you sit to write, try to be sincere and particular but not overly so. Love is a synthesizing emotion, an emotional union with the chemical madness that compels species to propagate, so don’t feel obliged to particularize every birthmark on your beloved’s backside or include her middle name if it’s a long one. On the other hand, don’t make the poem so general that she thinks this could be a generic poem you use on everybody. It has to be her and should divide its energy equally between her attributes and your longing for them. You need only her, remember. Go easy on the irony and classical allusions, in the high-seventeenth-century manner; those poets were functioning in a culture more print-literate and dualistic than ours. Our brains are becoming more and more like computers, and you don’t press two keys at once. Actually, you do, but don’t try it in a love poem.

Before you plunge into that rhyming dictionary, in fact, you might consider whether your love object might be turned off by a poem and find the image of you hunkered at your worktable with a box of dusty-rose stationery ridiculous. Maybe a brief fax would do, if she’s a career woman. Or a bulletin on the Internet, if she’s a subscriber.

4 replies »

  1. Funny, just before I read this, I was looking at some old Valentine’s Day cards my wife wrote me. Highly recommended for rekindling romance.