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Advice to a Rhinestone Cowgirl; How Not to Write a Poem

August 27, 2010 | by

I'm young, poor, and unemployed in New York. I have no family connections, and my friends are all similarly destitute. I want an inspirational text; are there any novels about sympathetic social-striver types who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps without losing their friends and their souls in the process? —Camilla D.

Funny you should ask. All day I've been walking around with the Glen Campbell song "Rhinestone Cowboy" stuck in my head:

I've been walking these streets so long
Singing the same old song
I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway,
Where hustle's the name of the game
And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain ...

One identifies. As Glen says, there'll be a load of compromisin' on the road to his horizon: I worry that this tends to be the case. And even though I know you don't want me to tell you to read Lost Illusions, you must read Lost Illusions, if you haven't. It is spooky how often some detail of Balzac's Paris will remind you exactly of New York—like seeing your own face in a daguerrotype. A very louche daguerrotype. The hero does lose his friends and his soul. Plus his illusions. But you can handle it. I believe in you!

(Plan B: Breakfast at Tiffany's?)

A girl has demanded I write her a poem, but I'm not really familiar with poetry (save Neruda). Could you suggest a few poets to get me up to speed before I embark on this endeavor? —K., London

What an exciting—and daunting—commission!

Whatever you do, don't do what I did. In sixth grade ("first form"?) I brought home a used anthology entitled Romantic Poetry, assuming there would be something suitable for a valentine. It was like reading Ulysses for the dirty parts. Skip the Romantics, is my advice. Ditto the Cavaliers. The old let's-do-it-while-you're-still-hot gambit has had its day. (Can it ever have actually worked?)

I don't imagine you want to mess with meter and rhyme your first time out. No sonnets. Anything that sounds like Elizabeth Barrett Browning will scare her off. Anything Dark Ladyish will insult her. The seductive powers of poetry, in my humble opinion, are overrated. Poets may tell you otherwise. Poets lie. When they pretend to be writing about love, they are usually writing about sex or death, or more often sex and death.

Your man Neruda is a love poet, for better or worse. I take it he doesn't inspire you. Elizabeth Bishop wrote good love poems, but very quiet. D.H. Lawrence liked Robert Burns as a love poet, but to write in brogue strikes me as a "high-stakes move." (That's writing program jargon for a boner.) If you are tempted to write an e.e. cummings poem, think how you'll feel in the morning.

If I wanted to write a love poem with a minimum of moving parts, I might try to make it something like Margaret Atwood's greatest hit, "You Fit Into Me":

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

Dark. Furious. Grateful. Most of all it makes no promises. Promises are to love poems as chopped herring is to gelato. "Till all the seas gang dry, my dear" only works on an Al Green level—you can hear the smile between the lines. It's so cheerful it is, as the Germans say, inkonsequent. Frank O'Hara wrote many good love poems, thanks to his affectionate fickle good nature, so for that matter did Kenneth Koch. You might try his New Addresses, just to get you in the mood. Charles Simic has written good love poems. August Kleinzahler has written good love poems, as did his master Basil Bunting, but they are all too clearly the fruit of long study and native genius. Ditto ditto all the poets who occur to me tonight.

Here is a good love poem by Frederick Seidel, "October," read by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Start at 5:38.

If you really like the girl, then look into your heart and write what's there. And don't listen to Muddy Waters. The moment I realized I would never be a poet I was eating a grilled cheese, ham, and potato chip sandwich in a bar, after a long day's work on a poem, yes a love poem, with the poem still in my head, and someone walked in and punched "I Just Want to Make Love to You" in the jukebox and plunged me into despair. (By chip, of course, I mean crisp.)

K., have you considered the guitar?

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  1. Geoff M. Pope | August 27, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Whatremendous advice! Here’s another — this one from Emily Dickinson — that seems to fit your demandingirl:

  2. Rafael | August 27, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    I’m not an english speaker but I can tell you that whatever you write for the girl, read it aloud along you are writing it. You have to feel something, something truth. It does not matter the rhyme just the truth. You can write it in prose, but be honest. My brother once wrote:
    Your presence and my solitude touch in the extremes. Enough. Have a luck

  3. Imani | August 27, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Haha, I like this. I’ve been reading a lot of Sara Teasedale lately and recommend her. (She can be a bit tortured and offer promises though.)

    Btw, 6th grade is still 6th grade in Britain. 1st form doesn’t start til 7th grade. Although the USA’s middle schools & junior highs confuse things a bit.

  4. Imani | August 27, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    P.S. I love how often you reference French Lit. Balzac is a favourite.

  5. Grace G. | August 28, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Sound advice, and now I want to read those you mentioned I have not already read, thanks. Grace G.

  6. Lorin Stein | August 28, 2010 at 11:01 am

    “Done with the compass,/Done with the chart …” “Wild Nights” is indeed a great one (but talk about a promise!). Thank you for thinking to mention it here, Mr Pope.

  7. Theresa Loder | August 29, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    To Camilla D.


    Glad you asked
    who I am
    and what I want to be may help me
    realize my destiny

    innocence embraces
    all that’s new
    the voice of youth confides
    a better world in view

    future’s left
    to those who dare to dream
    be aware
    things aren’t always
    as they seem

    pictures in our minds
    developed in our hearts
    echo new beginnings
    of which we all are part

    I appear complex
    you may pass me by
    so I communicate
    a way to simplify

    imagine each of us
    a tiny grain of sand
    blowing in the wind
    forming a new land

    Theresa loder

    Inspired by Joan Lowry and
    Melissa Samsel ..Melissa was a student who had art work at an exhibit in Sarasota , Florida

  8. kg | August 29, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Any chance of getting a look at LS’s aborted (or completed as the case may be) love poem? I’m curious, for one. While I admire you for deciding you’re no poet, I can’t help but wonder if the poem was delivered, and if it ‘worked’?

  9. SVP | September 6, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Dear K.,

    I find I work best with a deadline. Give your self forty minutes and a rhyming dictionary. If it’s still a no go, buy flowers.

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