How do I love thee: Poems not just for Valentine’s Day

Love is in the air… extract from a vintage Valentine's Day card from riptheskull on Flickr
6 Feb 2013 @ 4.12 pm
| News
Love is in the air… extract from a vintage Valentine's Day card from riptheskull on Flickr
Love is in the air… extracts from a vintage Valentine’s Day cards from riptheskull on Flickr

It’s in the air. It’s all around. It’s all you need. YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley suggests love is the ultimate inspiration for any writer


Well, how are the resolutions going?! So far, so good with my one poem a week, aided no doubt by a wonderful Winter Warmer Arvon course at The Hurst in Shropshire last week.

It was just as well it was toasty in the centre as there was a foot of snow outside. Ian Duhig and Caroline Bird were great. So encouraging and inspiring. I came home with a fistful of new poems and bursting with ideas.

I’m still suffering withdrawal symptoms from Strictly, though. Dancing On Ice is not the same though still worth watching if only to see Keith Chegwin wobbling about and that nice chap who played Anthony Moon in Eastenders giving them all a run for their money.

Mind you, till this week the most dramatic bits had definitely taken place in A&E. Now, at last, it’s getting exciting. Well, fairly exciting. How long till the Great British Bake Off is back on our screens?

It's worth watching Dancing On Ice to see "Keith Chegwin wobbling about". Photograph: ITV
It’s worth watching Dancing On Ice to see “Keith Chegwin wobbling about”. Photograph: ITV

I don’t spend all my time watching people make a mess of things on TV. I read a lot (currently Sharon Olds Stag’s Leap, Julia Copus The World’s Two Smallest Humans and Sean Borodale Bee Journal, and also Nicholas Roe’s John Keats).

Sometimes I even go to art galleries (though not in York for the next 18 months). This week I went to the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace to see for myself a painting I am writing a poem about. Not a corgi in sight. The exhibition was amazing – once you’d got past the strip search to get in. Bit like flying with Ryan Air. Anyway it gave me a couple of ideas for exercises to put on the blog as well as six pages of notes for my own poem.

Talking of which I have to tell you how excited I am about the poems I have received so far for the competition. Every morning another ten come pinging into my inbox and I can’t resist reading them straightaway. A drip, then a trickle and now a flood.

I foresee loss of life by the deadline at the end of the month. And the standard is very high. I have my favourites already and we’ve barely started yet.

I’ll tell you one thing that really struck me. Titles are very important. Maybe especially because I see the title before I open the attachment. It’s a pretty safe bet that if the title is intriguing the poem will be good too.

Think of your title as a selling point. Don’t just settle for one that “does what it says on the tin”. Long titles are a good idea. So are short, cryptic ones. After all, they can add something to the poem as well as attracting the reader to it in the first place. Have a look through a really good anthology like Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive. Just read the titles page. Which poem would you really like to read? How about The Back Seat of my Mother’s Car, The Loch Ness Monster’s Song, Three Ways of Recovering a Body, A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack, The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me or How to Disappear? I’ll have what they’re having.

Or something simple but striking. One of these perhaps? Rent, Delay, Tracks, Waking, Yes, Someone or She?

Titles are even more important in competitions. I’ve read that so often in judges’ reports but now I see why. A good poem will always surface however boring the title but a good title will grab the judge’s attention and make him/her want to pick up the poem and read it.

If you look at the list of previous winners of the National Poetry Competition some of the titles are cracking. How about The Full Indian Rope Trick (Colette Bryce), Icicles Round A Tree In Dumfriesshire (Ruth Padel) or The Ice Factory (Philip Gross)?

valentine-girlI promised to keep you writing by giving a few more ideas in my February blog so here goes. I like to be topical so let’s have a go at love poems. There are a couple among the entries but that’s it so far.

Come on – love is a really big deal in the poetry world. Write about the love of your life and it’s a safe bet readers out there will relate to it. Address a poem to your love and a stranger will steal it to win someone’s heart. Tell us how you felt when someone dumped you and we’ll all know exactly what you mean. It will make us feel better, or at least less alone.

But – and it’s a big but – your poem will have to be good. You have to find fresh ways of writing about love. There is a very big temptation to fall back on cliché. Resist it! You have something new to say so say it in a new way or it won’t be heard.

I won’t even print it out unless it grabs me by the throat or at least makes me think “Yes, that’s exactly how it feels”. If it makes me cry you’re already on the shortlist. Not an easy thing to do, though. I came out of Les Misérables dry-eyed only last night.

As always, let’s start with the experts. In her poem Valentine, Carol Ann Duffy addresses the problem of “being truthful” in a love poem and avoiding all the old tired metaphors. (I know, I know, I keep on about her but she is the poet laureate after all and anyway I want you to go and see her at the Theatre Royal on Sunday, March 24. You’ll have to hurry. Tickets are selling fast)

onionIn the poem Duffy offers her “valentine” the most unlikely present she can think of. She rejects red roses and satin hearts and goes for a smelly onion. The onion “promises light/ like the careful undressing of love” and we start to see that even a vegetable makes a great metaphor for love.

There is the rustle of unwrapping, the way it makes you cry, the way “its fierce kiss will stay on your lips” and “its loops shrink to a wedding ring, if you like”. I love the instructional tone of the poem “Here”, “Take it”, “I am trying to be truthful”, and the delicate form on the page. It used to hang in the kitchen at Lumb Bank so you could read it when you were cooking.

Think of your own unlikely object and offer it to your lover in a poem. Explore its potential as a metaphor. Express your feelings through it, as you can’t really express your feelings through the more predictable objects in the shops. They are a symbol of love but in a linguistic sense, they have lost their power to speak for you.

Another poet who writes brilliantly about love is Liz Lochhead, the Scottish Makar (Scotland’s equivalent of a poet laureate.) In her poem I Wouldn’t Thank You For A Valentine she has fun informing her lover that she won’t welcome the usual offerings, can’t be doing with the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day and suggests something outrageously romantic instead. A gesture so over the top it will “make her melt”. Well, that’s what we all want so let’s come up with something original that will win the stoniest, most cynical heart.

Sorry if I’m doing Betty’s out of business here. Just for the record, I love chocolate hearts. Apologies to Interflora too. Red roses will be fine by me. I’m just saying…


What could be better than a poem as a gift? Not one of those ghastly verses that appear in the press this time of year and which most people read for a good laugh. It’s actually quite sad that, when someone wants more than anything to express their feelings of love or loss, they feel completely ill-equipped to say it in a poem. Or, worse still, they don’t even know how ill-equipped they are!

Some people, of course, say it with flowers – or don’t get around to it, like the lover in Wendy Cope’s poem Flowers – I gave the link to the Poetry Archive as I think it’s important to hear poems as well as read them.

Faber have just brought out a series of poetry iPad apps. They’re great and only £2.99 for a taste of Wendy Cope, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin or Seamus Heaney. I can really recommend the Faber/Touch Press Shakespeare’s Sonnets app too. All 154 sonnets read by poets and Shakespearian actors plus the Arden notes and a brilliant commentary by Don Paterson for under ten quid.

You could certainly do worse than listen to or read the sonnets to get you in the mood for writing your own love poem. Or try John Donne to get you in the mood. Or listen to Andrew Marvell using poetry to get his lover into bed. Who said poetry makes nothing happen? If you like your love poems sexy rather than romantic there is a marvellous anthology from Bloodaxe, Pleased To See Me: 69 Very Sexy Poems (ed. Neil Astley) containing the likes of…

e e cummings

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
from ‘i like my body when it is with your’

Claire Pollard

It’s your best friend’s 16th birthday party.
That’s eight hamster lives, and yet she still wasn’t wise enough
to realise it would turn into a heavy-petting zoo.
from ‘The Heavy Petting Zoo’

and Hugo Williams

Do you think I mind
when the blank expression comes
and you set off alone
down the hall of collapsing columns?
from ‘Rhetorical Questions’

Love, sex, roses, chocolates, whatever… Happy Valentine’s Day and send me some love poems.

Email your competition poems to [email protected] by February 28, but please check the rules first.

If you’re in Leeds on Saturday, February 9, I am reading in the Courtroom at Leeds Town Hall from 7pm-8.30pm. Do come along and say hello.

PING – another 12 poems just arrived in my inbox. Had a quick look and one of them is in with a chance. Unless, of course, you know better…

Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.