Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


The poetry of 'You and I'

By Steven Ratiner / February 14, 1983



When I was in high school, my poetry class was visited by Louis Simpson. Mr. Simpson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, was the first truly famous writer I had ever met. And, being an impressionable teen-ager with (what used to be called) ''literary aspirations,'' I fully expected the occasion to be momentous. The poet read some of his work to the class and then fielded our questions. Inevitably someone made the standard appeal for ''advice for young poets.'' Among his remarks, he stressed one point: don't write love poetry. ''It's a subject so extensively and so masterfully covered over the centuries, there's certainly nothing new you can add.''

Skip to next paragraph

I would have felt crushed by his injunction if my confirmed rebelliousness hadn't quickly overruled his judgment. After all, this was during the later 1960 s, and I was a part of a new era, something that would soon be christened ''the Love Generation.'' Practically the only subjects my friends and I wrote about were war, alienation, and love. After a time, I decided that Mr. Simpson issued his warning knowing full well that it invited a challenge. Fair enough; at the time I believed my generation would indeed uncover new visions in all aspects of living, and the art of love would be no exception.

During the 1970s, the great wave of rebellion was gradually transformed into a quiet lapping on the shores of self-interest. The visions of a new world were sacrificed in the marketplace to economic realities. The speed of this retreat led one friend to speculate whether the ''the Love Generation'' would not be remembered as ''the generation who forgot how to love.'' I noticed that the poetry of this decade had turned increasingly cerebral, angry, abstract, and intricately crafted. But after a broader study, I've realized that the abandonment of the love poem had not begun with my generation. It had suffered a decline of respectability after World War I and was a vanishing species by the conclusion of the Second. To be sure, types of love poems will be written as long as there are lovers to read them. But they are conspicuous by their virtual absence from the mainstream of modern American literature.

What has happened to the modern love poem? What has become of loving itself in the wake of world wars and in the shadow of nuclear holocausts? Not surprisingly, the answer is: much the same thing that has happened to all of our society. We've become extremely introspective, scrutinizing our psyches for their darkest secrets. (It is no coincidence that as the love poem was falling, the psychological novel was ascending.) We've become doubt-ridden and cynical, almost proud in our general disbelief. Even though the human emotional and intellectual range has been daringly edged forward, the majority has sought refuge in the safe zone of rationalism, individual freedoms, and noncommittal relationships. Like the popular media of television and film, we have become ''cool,'' reserved, well-packaged, an extra arms length away from experience. Few love poems appear in the books of our best-known poets, and those that do mirror the shift in our emotional temperament. Some are so full of scars, are such psychological booby traps, you'd never imagine giving one to a loving friend.

Kenneth Patchen, among his diverse creations, was the author of some of the most eloquent love poetry of this century. After his death, his wife, Miriam, once remarked, ''In a way, his was the only love poetry written in our time.'' She was drawing attention to the full-voiced, wholehearted spirit that marks a true love poem - so rare a quality in contemporary writing. Love poems of the last few decades tend to speak obliquely, away from the beloved, in hushed tones and subtle turns of meaning. Sometimes the language is highly charged but opaque , and the emotions are deflected onto the natural or psychological terrain instead of the intimate listener. It is sad, but the most powerful examples concern lost love, or some general exaltation to the idea of love. Love, like the religious experience, is becoming classified as one of the inexpressibles - subjects too personal or too profound to even risk articulating. But more than that, you get the distinct impression that such emotional intensity is somehow embarrassing - to even possess, let alone to express in print. The magazines and literary journals seem to have placed them under quarantine. But if you must write about love, the only acceptable image for conveying its emotion seems to be that three-lettered deity: sex. It is as if, when all else seems tenuous, at least there is this physical certainty. Yet you'd think that by now most people would have learned to be suspicious of equating the two ideas. Considering the scarcity of love poems and the plethora of pop-psychology and self-help manuals on the bookstands, I've begun to wonder whether or not America hasn't forgotten how to love.

Is this story to be concluded on such a dour note? Not on Feb. 14, most certainly. Because for all those who care, there are still fine examples of love poetry being created, writing that is not only rich in emotional depth but thoroughly modern in style and sensibility. You just have to hunt a bit more assiduously to uncover them. Here are poems from the two modern masters of the love poem, Patchen and E. E. Cummings. They are less ornate than the classical examples, and the subjects have shifted away from ''O my luve is like a red, red rose''; but the main elements of a love poem are contained within all of them: the sense of intimate understanding, the strength of feeling, and the supremely personal quality of voice that immediately conveys to the ear ''this is spoken from me to you alone.'' Perhaps it is that ''to you'' quality that makes love poetry such a marvel. Though it originates in a very specific I-thou relationship, the nature of the understanding allows each reader to speak the part of ''I''; and for each one, in his inner eye, a particular and particularly cherished ''you.''