Poets often remark that being happy, especially in romantic love, results in stretches of not writing, or stretches of writing poorly. Lacking Frost’s “lump in the throat,” they just don’t have much to say, because they’re too busy living their bliss. This is not to say that there aren’t reams of enduring love poems, suitable for weddings and the best love letters, but most poets write better when disturbed or conflicted, even about something far away in time or space. And most people who read poetry outside the classroom are seeking comfort or understanding from it because, in the moment, those things aren’t available elsewhere.
Two of my favorite contemporary love poems, “So What If I Am in Love” by Molly Peacock and “Looking Back in My Eighty-First Year” by Maxine Kumin, manage to have it both ways. Both celebrate romantic love without giving the reader that queasy sensation of scrolling through a social-media feed in which everyone else is living a happier and more beautiful life.
Peacock, who is known for adeptness with meter and rhyme, uses irregularly rhymed tercets to describe a New York City subway ride in the immediate aftermath of a night that must be kept under wraps if the speaker wants her life to proceed without crisis. Her new lover has lent her an old sweatshirt to sleep in, then given it to her to keep:
This economical opening not only lays out the situation clearly but also provides plenty for the ear: the off-rhymes of “both,” “breath,” “wrath,” “if,” and “with” operating against the exact rhymes of “worn,” “born,” and “torn,” which also converse with the interior rhyme of “my life torn down.” Meanwhile, “blurred” is echoed in “bird,” “delight” in “life,” “breath” in “nest.” The penguin on the shirt is wearing off—“the faded lines of a bird”—but through its scent and softness, a new passion is being “born.” The “delight” the speaker feels is tempered by “the imagined wrath, / the sheer disaster of my life torn down / if the shirt were ever found”; she tries to quash her elation and fit herself back into the life she was living before this encounter. Yet:
With the rhymes of “underwear,” “glare,” and “there,” interspersed with “given” (which occurs twice), “driven,” and “even,” the word “accepted” in the third stanza now sticks out as the only unrhymed end word in the first five stanzas. “Accepted” is the wild card, the speaker’s incipient willingness to violate both her rhyme scheme and her life. By taking the incriminating gift of the sweatshirt, she has signed on to the new relationship—or she thinks she has. And then there’s a turning back: “But I left it there.”
The poem doesn’t specify whether she leaves the bag on purpose or by accident; presumably it’s both, a mixture that expresses her ambivalence: it would be so much more convenient not to love this person, “even / at the cost of your growth.” Can’t she walk away from him, just as she can walk away from the sweatshirt? As soon as she jumps out onto the platform without the bag, she looks back:
When the doors opened, I leapt out, turned around,
saw it on the seat as the train rushed past,
screaming “No!” so loud a man turned around.
There is no need to describe the setting; we gather from this brief interaction that the station is crowded, the trains mercilessly efficient, the bag irretrievable. That “a man turned around” evokes the human activity around her and—except for that one man—its indifference to her loss. Soon the man, too, is gone, into the bowels of a city that runs on “cash”:
When the rhyme of “past,” “aghast,” and another sense of “past”—playfully intertwined with “cash”—turns into the off-rhyme of “waste,” we see that this moment is going to lay waste to her existing relationship, to her familiar life. She is “aghast” but has no choice. What is represented by the “bird” has “stirred” elemental feelings; seeing it carried away into the subway system’s hundreds of miles of track has clarified her wishes.
I have no idea what Peacock’s drafts look like, but from my own longtime experience with rhyme, I imagine that searching for rhymes gave rise to “arctic waste,” which, combined with the penguin, paved the way to the imagery of the closing lines:
The image of a person “tossed” from one ice floe to another perfectly sets up the three-part last line, which is as much about language as it is about emotion. “So what if I am” combines “what if I’m in love?” and “I am in love” with the surface recklessness of a decision that isn’t reckless at all. The apparent shrug of the title—“So What If I Am in Love”—has turned out not to be a shrug at all, but the culmination of an agonizing struggle.
The poem contains as much harmony (rhyme) as it does conflict (“the panic-driven / self” versus “delight”). The ending is anything but glib; the speaker has been buffeted by forces larger than herself, which are not only the circumstances of her life but also the ancient conventions of poetry: rhyme and orderly stanzas. These forces make her decision, like the lines of her poem, less negotiable and not entirely in her hands. To me this poem is both a musical pleasure and compelling evidence that love succeeds—and fails—for reasons that are often beyond an individual person’s control. There is room in this poem not only for the lucky, but also for the unlucky, in love.
Maxine Kumin’s “Looking Back in My Eighty-First Year” depicts the beginning of what, in the poet’s life, turned out to be a long, happy marriage. It opens with an epigraph from Hilma Wolitzer that addresses the shock of aging: “How did we get to be old ladies—my grandmother’s job—when we were the long-leggèd girls?”
Rare is the young bride who doesn’t have some anxieties about her decision; exacerbating this speaker’s doubt is the specific opportunity she has turned down to get married:
Immediately we discern that this young woman is an intellectual, her graduation a college one, most likely with high honors. Looking at the poet’s dates, 1925-2014, this wedding is probably taking place in the mid-1940s. How many brilliant women of that time had potential careers shut down right after graduation with the striking up of “Here Comes the Bride”? Although this poem is here to show us that things went otherwise for this woman, we feel the loss of the many others who could have done scholarly work on Stendhal but instead disappeared into domestic duty.
It’s also a fraught time to go to Europe:
At first glance, “How could I go?” seems to refer to the speaker’s lack of experience. It would be dangerous to take this journey in the immediate aftermath of the war, but especially perilous for a bookish young woman “who had never been west of the Mississippi.” Then we get the next line—“Passion had locked us together”—and the question becomes less about safety and more about her attachment to the beloved. She can’t go because she’s in love.
And yet it is only human to wonder, all these decades later, whether she could have had both the marriage and the fellowship. This is the germ of the poem, its conflict, the slight edge that reveals that everything isn’t perfect.
This is also when the poem starts to rhyme in earnest. In the first three stanzas, one has to search for the rhymes, and it would be reasonable to argue that those stanzas don’t rhyme. An enthusiast for off-rhyme, I’m tempted to pair “arm as” with “do this,” as well as “struck up,” “fellowship,” and “manuscript,” but I’m not sure many would agree, and indeed the relatively proselike rhythm discourages us from hearing them as rhymes. I would also connect “examine,” “Leuwen,” and “ocean,” and while these are a bit easier to defend, they are not as audible as most of Kumin’s rhyming in other poems, and the ear isn’t primed to hear them, thanks to a preponderance of unrhymed end-words and the visual but not aural rhyme of “White Star” and “Second World War.” Yet these hints of rhyme, however remote, are important because they make it possible for the poem to launch into full rhyme later.
By stanza four, we encounter not only “over” and “together” but then: “Sixty years my lover.” The rhyme holds as we jump forward through time to Kumin’s eighty-first year:
Now we have not only “over,” “together,” and “lover,” but also “locked” echoed in “docked,” the less-conspicuous “sat” and “back,” and the more forceful “waited” and “fated.” (I’d rather not get into any fights about whether “pursers” and “paper” rhyme.) The path the young bride didn’t take—going to the University of Grenoble—is mostly unrhymed. The life she did live, on the other hand, is cemented, also, by a more iambic rhythm. Rhyme and meter, as they often do, make these stanzas—and thus this outcome—feel inevitable, “fated.”
The final stanza could only have been written in old age:
Marriage dizzied us. Hand over hand,
flesh against flesh for the final haul,
we tugged our lifeline through limestone and sand,
lover and long-leggèd girl.
The two short declarative sentences—“It was fated” and “Marriage dizzied us”—would not work without the surrounding imagery and rhyme. The image of an older couple “tugg[ing] our lifeline through limestone and sand” and of a young couple reuniting at a dock, the ever-literary woman “littering the runway with carbon paper,” create them as knowable characters. The powerful “lover and long-leggèd girl” bring back the smitten young couple who have now been married sixty years. The tight rhyme of “hand” and “sand” as well as the slight off-rhyme of “haul” and “girl” seal the poem, just as that early decision, requiring sacrifice on her part, sealed a meaningful promise. Still, the heart of the poem is doubt. It is not a poem of regret, but there is a layer of wistfulness, of normal human wondering.
“Looking Back in my Eighty-First Year,” in all its strength, could also function as an occasional poem (and perhaps it has), read aloud to friends and family at a sixtieth-anniversary party. Picture dinner guests following along on the back of a menu card: Kumin’s graduated rhymes answer the ear’s need for song while also providing loose organizing principles for her quatrains, which visually mete out the years and facilitate transitions in thought, feeling, and time. Meanwhile, Peacock’s “So What If I Am in Love,” taking place in a smaller timespan, uses more frequent and audible rhymes that, too, organize the tercets, justify enjambments, convey crucial information without sounding explanatory, and entertain by both shape and sound. Once, these formal elements were the definition of poetry. Now that writing in rhyme and meter is anything but the default, poets must consciously decide when to do so. It might pay off especially well in love poems, where conflict is in shorter supply than in unhappier poems. Formal elements themselves can act as sources of tension, even suspense. The reader, along with the poet, wonders what is going to rhyme with “down if,” or “examine.” A stanzaic pattern, once established, can be adhered to or disrupted, to convey conformity, transgression, or transgression within conformity; a moment of hesitation (“I’m not sure I want to do this”) can be brushed aside because it has brought us to the end of the quatrain, so it’s time to walk down the aisle of white space; elation can be dramatized by repetition within the constraints of short lines: “given, / given to me!” There are simply more walls to gently collide within a formal poem, and some topics need more collisions than others.
In 2009 —her eighty-fourth year—I had the good fortune to invite Maxine Kumin to Dickinson College for a two-day residency. She read this poem, among others, to an appreciative audience, and during the Q&A, a student asked her, “What do you think would have happened if you’d gone to Grenoble?”
Kumin’s reply made us all laugh: “I probably would have fallen in love with a Frenchman and run away.”
We loved her for that and much more about the visit; the same honesty gives the poem its vitality. We also knew that Victor Kumin supported her passion for poetry; a husband who did not do so, with three children born in the ensuing years, might well have ended his wife’s career as a poet before it began. The life-altering choices most people make in their twenties have long, unforeseeable effects. To consider this, from any point in life, is dizzying.
Think about a marriage or other romantic partnership that you think you don’t quite understand. It doesn’t have to be your own; it could be your parents’ or grandparents’, or that of a friend or other relative, or of public or fictional figures. In fact, it may be easiest to write about a relationship you don’t know that much about because you will be forced to imagine much of it. Look for a pivotal moment in that relationship—if not the beginning or end, then maybe a period of doubt when, for instance, one emigrated with the promise to bring the other later, or when a struggle between them began, whatever the outcome. Consider rhyme and received form as receptacles that might help you organize the material and bring in unexpected images. Give the formal elements room to be irregular, and to make their needs known later in the process, certainly not in the first draft or two.
Everywhere, a reason for caution:
crystal bowls, white teacups, porcelain.
Objects, which used to tumble in
on their way to the junk heap,
now possessed origins.
I had no idea what to do with a dog
that didn’t come from the pound,
and now, as if suddenly old,
found frailties in places I never knew existed.
Casseroles leapt, glasses imploded—
I wept each time. I knew from poetry
that no one conquers entropy,
but I also knew from poetry
everyone has to try. Rescued, the animal
loses all anonymity
in a syllable, and the hero’s nobility
dissolves into family.
Marriage is the same, with dishes and rings.
Vows or no vows, you embrace your own death,
journeying to which, you only get clumsier, and things,
which you thought mere material,
A love poem risks becoming a ruin,
public, irretrievable, a form of tattooing,
while loss, being permanent,
can sustain a thousand documents.
Loss predominates in history,
smorgasbord of death, betrayal, heresy,
crime, contagion, deployment, divorce.
A writer could remain aboard
the ship of grief and thrive, never
approaching the shores of rapture.
What can be said about elation
that the elated, seeking consolation
from their joy, will go to books for?
It’s wiser and quicker to look for
a poem in the dentist’s chair
than in the luxury suite where
eternal love, declared, turns out
to be eternal. Who cares about
a stranger’s bliss? Thus the juncture
where I’m stalled, unaccustomed
to integrity, despite your presence,
our tranquility, and every confidence.
Kumin, Maxine. “Looking Back in My Eighty-First Year,” Still to Mow, Norton, 2007, pp. 68-69.
Peacock, Molly. “So What If I Am in Love,” Original Love, Norton, 1995, pp. 22-23.
Adrienne Su, “Wedding Gifts” from Sanctuary. Copyright © 2006 by Adrienne Su. Published by Manic D Press. Reprinted with permission of publisher and author.
Adrienne Su, “On Writing” from Living Quarters. Copyright © 2015 by Adrienne Su. Published by Manic D Press. Reprinted with permission of publisher and author.
Photo credit: For Maxine Kumin: AP. For Molly Peacock: V. Tony Hauser.
Adrienne Su is the author of four books of poems, Middle Kingdom(Alice James Books, 1997), Sanctuary (Manic D Press, 2006), Having None of It (Manic D, 2009), and Living Quarters (Manic D, 2015). Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Dickinson College. Recent poems appear in journals and anthologies including Bennington Review, New Ohio Review, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Best American Poetry 2018, and Vinegar & Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. More poems and prose can be found at adriennesu.ink.