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A young woman in her bedroom sits at her desk holding flowers and a letter and looks back at us over her shoulder and smiles

Jean Honoré Fragonard The Love Letter Early 1770s. Courtesy the Met Museum, New York

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Guide

How to write a love poem

Flirtatious texts are soon forgotten. Learn to express your feelings in a beautiful way that will make a lasting impression

Jean Honoré Fragonard The Love Letter Early 1770s. Courtesy the Met Museum, New York

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Dan Simpson

is a writer, facilitator and coach. With more than a decade of experience as a professional poet and spoken word artist, he is passionate about supporting others in their expression of creativity, authenticity, and communication. He lives in Brighton, UK.

Edited by Christian Jarrett

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Need to know

You’ve noticed the way your mind involuntarily floats back to thinking about them, and the corresponding fluttering of your heart. You recollect the way their face crinkles just so when they laugh, and sensations run like delicious wildfire through your body. You are a child again, daydreaming multiple possible futures with them by your side. When you come to name it, the emotion you feel can only be one thing: ‘love’.

Love, like any emotion, is a personal thing: the way you experience love will be different from the way I feel it – and different again from the way your beloved experiences it too. As well as being a noun, ‘love’ is perhaps more at home as a verb. It’s an active word: love for another changes constantly, the quality of it shape-shifting over time. It’s a state of being, and beings rarely stay in one state for too long. You’re reading this Guide, and so you’re already thinking about capturing the alive sense of love into a set verse of poetry.

Lover: I wish you luck. Not only are you trying to pin onto the page one of life’s most enlivening and magical experiences, but you are following in the footsteps of poets composing from the cradle of civilisation to now. The first known written love poem is from around 2000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia:

You have captivated me; I stand trembling before you.
– ‘The Love Song of Shu-Sin’ (translated by Michael R Burch)

Before that, poets from the preliterate oral tradition were no doubt telling love stories of deities and mortals – and who fancied who in their tribe. Fast-forward through poets who sometimes made love a focus of their verse – Rumi, Shakespeare, Byron, Barrett Browning, Dickinson, Neruda, Rich – not to mention every aspiring and established poet who has had a go at the immortal topic, and it’s a long tradition with some absolute gems. Here are a few quotes to inspire you:

You are the Essence of the Essence,
The intoxication of Love.
– ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’, Rumi
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach …
– ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ (Sonnet 43), Elizabeth Barrett Browning
I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone
and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love …
– Poem II from ‘Twenty-One Love Poems’, Adrienne Rich

Writing a love poem is a timeless act

So: why bother? In our age, you can instantaneously slide into someone’s DMs with an AI-generated flirtatious message and it may well achieve the hoped-for outcome. I assume your hoped-for outcome is for a greater sense of closeness, for the recipient of your overtures to know you – and your feelings for them – better. What might follow from that closeness… well, let’s leave that to the imagination. With modern tools at your disposal, it might seem old-fashioned to take the time to write an entire poem for your beloved – but that is the power of a poem: time.

Slowing down to choose the right words that get close to how you feel – and then giving them to someone – is a beautiful statement. It is, in fact, timeless. The poem will be remembered: an email will not. You may be considering writing a love letter – a fantastic form that may even be poetic – but there’s something uniquely powerful about poetry that seems to speak to us. There’s a reason it’s the go-to form for those significant and ceremonial celebrations of love – particularly at weddings.

I’ve focused on romantic love here in this introduction, and in this Guide – what the ancient Greeks called ‘eros’, or sexual love. This form of love is perhaps what we commonly bring to mind when we think about love poetry, though in reality we love in as many ways as there are to be human. The Greeks broke down love into several categories: love for our family (‘storge’), our friends (‘philia’), ourselves (‘philautia’), our guests (‘xenia’), and divine love (‘agape’). We love our pets, places, objects, food, clothes, memories, sunsets, that baited-breath hush of anticipation as a film’s title card is shown at the cinema. We have the capacity to love both deeply and broadly, and only you know the distinct feelings that conjure that word into your consciousness.

This is your challenge: translating your unique experience of love into the common words of our shared language – without being clichéd, obvious or boring.

In a way, all poems are love poems. I write a poem, and in so doing reach out across the chronological and spatial distance between us, desiring to mingle my personal experience with yours. With every poem I write, I ask: do you want to know me better? Do you want to feel this, too? Do you want to be less alone? Anyone and everyone can write a love poem, and I encourage you to try. Trying is, in itself, an act of love – for yourself, at least.

Lover, take my hand: I will guide you to find your voice, and help free it to speak of your love.

Whatever happens with your poem, remember: I love you for even trying.

What to do

A confession: I can’t tell you how to write, let alone how to write well. What I can do is suggest some approaches, provide some practice exercises, and tell you it will be OK.

Lover: you, and the poem, will be OK.

Get into the right mindset

Before you take on the first writing exercise, a word on the right frame of mind for writing.

As you get started, you may notice resistance coming up – or even a block that has you staring at the blank page, unable to move forwards. The two-headed enemy of writers may arrive in the form of distraction and procrastination: suddenly your emails or the washing up become very important – more important than writing poetry, surely? And actually, you just need to get the right music playing first, and perhaps you should do this at home rather than on the bus because you need a cup of tea to write, right?

Gently stop, and feel what’s happening here. These may be responses to some inner voice of self-judgment – a part of you that doesn’t believe you are capable of writing a good poem, or writing a poem at all. That voice might sound critical: like a judgmental elder you believe when they say you are not talented or skilled enough. That voice might start comparing your writing (even if you’ve not done any yet) to others’ – you’re no Shakespeare, pal! Maybe you feel a sense of defeat before you begin: since it’ll never be a perfect poem, why bother?

This spiral of self-doubt might culminate in the thought ‘I’m not a creative person’ which is something I hear people worry about regularly when I’m running poetry workshops. The truth is you are creative: as a child, you most likely danced freely and sung silly songs; you made up stories with your toys and went on epic adventures in your head; you finger-painted and coloured outside the lines and did not care what anyone else thought – instead, you showed it all off, saying: ‘Look what I made! Look, it’s me!’

I would like to encourage you to get into this child-like, playful frame of mind when tackling the exercises I’m about to share with you. They are a game to try, with no way to ‘win’ or ‘lose’; an experiment with no expected outcome. If those doubting voices come up, notice and acknowledge them – and then set them aside, recognising them as the unhelpful parts that they are. Whatever you write will be right, because there is no wrong way to do this. The main thing here is to simply begin.

As Julia Cameron, author of the hugely influential and transformative The Artist’s Way (1992), says in The Right to Write (1998):

Being in the mood to write, like being in the mood to make love, is a luxury that isn’t necessary in a long-term relationship. Just as the first caress can lead to a change of heart, the first sentence, however tentative and awkward, can lead to a desire to go just a little further.

So, Lover, take a deep breath and let us make the first caress that may result in a poem.

Practise writing about your beloved

Part of the challenge of writing a love poem is that it can feel incredibly daunting and you might not know where to start. Here is an initial exercise that can get you started by providing you with some material to play with. Take a moment and bring to mind your beloved. Now, finish these sentences – don’t overthink it, whatever flows out is good:

  • When I think about you, I…
  • You always…
  • I remember when we first met…
  • A secret only we know is…
  • I love it when you…
  • When we met, I felt…
  • You never…
  • When your face does that thing…
  • Something we share is…
  • When I miss you, I…
  • One day we’ll…
  • Something I can’t tell you is…
  • If you weren’t in my life, then…

Read back through your complete sentences. Do you want to expand on any of these? Feel free to take a second pass with new endings. Feel free to be guided by your intuition and get down some material!

Come up with some simple metaphors

There’s no fixed recipe for an effective love poem, but a popular ingredient is to include one or more metaphors to bring colour and imagery to your writing. It can be tricky for anyone to produce these on demand as they’re writing, so this second exercise is about digging into metaphor very directly and giving you some more raw material for your poem. Let’s go, Lover!

Thinking about the person you love, finish the sentence ‘You are a…’ using the prompts below. You could name one thing – ie, ‘You are a starfish’ – or be more descriptive – ie, ‘You are a flapping of wings, the arrival of birdsong in the morning.’ Once again, whatever you come up with is good!

  • animal
  • book
  • plant
  • place
  • dance
  • food
  • room in a house
  • weather
  • colour
  • song
  • sky
  • emotion
  • item of clothing

What else? Put a timer on for two minutes, and finish the sentence ‘You are a…’ as many times as possible!

Expand on any sentences that feel especially right and interesting to you. In what ways is this person like that thing or description – can you extend the metaphor further? For a twist, go through the list again – this time, with the sentence stem ‘You are not a…’

Find inspiration from love songs and old messages

Here is one further exercise to stimulate your creativity and help you generate some material to work with later on. It’s based on using found and ‘cut-up’ poetry in music and in your own writing. This can be a powerful technique, and has the added benefit of using others’ existing writing as a scaffold for your own.

  • Begin this exercise with a free-write: describe your beloved and your relationship together, write about a favourite memory (using multiple senses and emotions), describe yourself relative to them, and anything else that comes to mind. These can be paragraphs or individual sentences.
  • Next, think of a song that connects you with this person. It could be something you sing together, a song you both love, a soundtrack to your relationship, a song that reminds you of them – if nothing comes to mind, pick your favourite love song. Look up the lyrics and copy and paste or write down lines that stand out to you.
  • Now combine your writing with the lyrics – be intuitive, and see what just seems to fit together. Contrast and juxtaposition work well here too. You may find yourself writing new material around the lyrics, which is also fantastic.
  • Another approach is to find messages you and your beloved have sent to each other, such as texts or emails. Copy and paste or write down any that stand out: funny moments, loving phrases, weird constructions. Combine these with your own writing and see what comes out.

Construct your poem

Lover, if you’ve completed these three exercises (or even just one or two), then you now have an abundance of material to work with. You may have one line you like, or an idea of where your poem could go. You may even have something that feels like a poem already. These are all great outcomes, and mean that you’re ready for the next stage: finishing a first draft. Your task now is to write a singular (or multiple-part) poem from this material you created. That could involve using one line you wrote as inspiration and then writing freely; it could involve mixing up a few of your earlier lines here and there like a puzzle, where you have the edges already done; or you might go for an entirely different approach. I can’t tell you exactly how to do it: trust in your voice, and get it done.

Focus on the personal

A common struggle in writing a poem – any poem – is in the balance between the personal and the universal. Once you start writing your poem, you may feel that you have to capture in some timeless way the experience of being a human in love, in the hopes that anyone reading it thinks ‘Yes! Me too!’ Conversely, you may be worried that being too personal – that writing about the idiosyncratic details of your love – means no one else will relate to the poem.

Carl Rogers, the originator of person-centred psychotherapy, said that ‘what is most personal is most general’ – and this is a maxim artists often apply to their craft. It may feel counterintuitive, but often the more detailed you make your poem, the more relatable it will be. Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke With You’ is full of such details:

partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt …

What many readers enjoy in the poem is the author’s loving gaze and awareness: we relate to how we ourselves notice and appreciate the small things about the person we love. Perhaps your beloved doesn’t like yoghurt – but the way they stir their coffee? Oof, it just does something to you.

My advice here is to get away from trying to capture or say anything original about love itself, and focus in on the personal.

Experiment with established forms of poetry (if you want to)

As you prepare to write the first full draft of your poem, I recommend writing free form (not aiming for any particular structure). However, everyone is different and you might find it helpful to follow a particular poetic form or rhyme scheme. There is value to these in keeping a poem flowing and structured, and some people seem to naturally gravitate towards them. If that’s you, lean in and try it out – find a form that appeals, and see where it leads you. You could consider starting with a relatively simple ghazal, though I’d beware the tricky sestina!

The sonnet is a classic 14-line form for love poetry and can be a good place to start for beginners: the length allows for a decent amount of expression without going on for too long, and the rhyme scheme keeps it flowing nicely. If you decide to work to a metre – the pattern of beats and emphasis in a given line – then you’ll discover a sense of rhythm and pace too. Iambic is the classic rhythm, with the emphasis going like a heartbeat: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. Sonnets come in a few flavours, and it’s quite a flexible form. The main three sonnet forms, with their corresponding rhyme schemes, are Shakespearean (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG), Petrarchan (ABBA ABBA CDE CDE), and Spenserian (ABAB BCBC CDCD EE).

A structure like this can be incredibly useful for keeping a poem tamed – but know that adhering to a strict form can lead to its own frustrations. Like pulling on an errant thread on your jumper, wanting to change one word might result in the entire poem unravelling and in need of reknitting together. Free-form poetry offers the possibility of writing in whatever way you like, and the terror of writing in whatever way you like. You may find some balance between these poles of form, and end with a kind of semi-metred structure with an occasional flash of rhyme. Again, I want to reassure you: treat it as a playground, work through trial and error, and remember that it will no doubt be well received by your love.

Draft and redraft

It’s important to know that you can revisit this initial draft of your poem later with a fresh pair of eyes. In fact, I’d encourage it: you’ll either reread it and agree that it’s ready, or decide to write a second draft, which will often yield a more refined result. I will offer a note of caution on over-editing, though: you can kill the spirit of the thing by worrying too much over it. At some point, when you feel the piece captures well enough what you want to say, resolve it: it is finished.

Key points – How to write a love poem

  1. Writing a love poem is a timeless act. Slowing down to choose the right words that get close to how you feel – and then giving them to someone – is a beautiful statement. An email will be forgotten. A poem will not.
  2. Get into the right mindset. Self-doubt and fear of not being creative can lead to procrastination. Try to embrace a child-like, playful frame of mind.
  3. Practise writing about your beloved. A first step is to create some material to play with. A sentence-completion exercise (about your beloved) is a great place to start.
  4. Come up with some simple metaphors. It can be tricky to produce these on demand once you’re writing your poem, so a good follow-up exercise involves generating some metaphors about your beloved.
  5. Find inspiration from love songs and old messages. A final exercise to try before you begin your first draft involves digging out memories from your relationship, finding lyrics that resonate, and looking for fun or loving phrases you shared together in the past.
  6. Construct your poem. Using all the material you’ve generated, it’s time to pen the first draft of your love poem – trust in your voice and get it done.
  7. Focus on the personal. Once you get started, you might struggle to balance more general observations about love with your more personal experiences – my advice is to focus on the personal.
  8. Experiment with established forms of poetry (if you want to). I recommend writing free-form poetry, at least when you’re starting out. But if you find the idea of an established form helpful, I suggest writing a sonnet.
  9. Draft and redraft. It’s a good idea to revisit your initial efforts with a fresh pair of eyes. But beware of over-editing your poetry.

Learn more

Sharing your poem with your beloved

Once you’re satisfied with your poem, you can finally gift it to your love. The effort of writing a poem, and sharing it, is in itself an act of love, and I want to congratulate and honour you, Lover. Please let me know in the comments how it goes.

Writing and giving someone a love poem is a significant gesture – and carries with it notions of romance, particularly if we are not already in a relationship with that person. Romantic gestures are often based on surprise, which carries with it a risk that the act may not be wanted. Due to the influence of popular culture (I’m looking at you, Richard Curtis romcoms!), a story you might have is that it’s not possible to be romantic without the surprise element – possibly that they are largely one and the same thing. I’d like to say that this is not true.

Just as some people hate surprise parties because it overloads their nervous systems, an unexpected love poem might make someone feel uncomfortable – or even fearful. It’s important to think not just about your intention, but how the gesture might be received in the context of your existing relationship. This is something you cannot know for sure without asking the other person and getting clarity. Here is a beautiful opportunity to be in consent with the person you want to write for, and have a genuine moment of authentic connection. Imagine asking them if they’d like to receive a love poem from you, and their surprise and expression of happiness when they say ‘Yes’ – and then the joy they’ll feel when you present them with their poem.

And, if they say ‘No’? Well, if your intention is to express your love and care for this person, you can do it in no better way than respecting and honouring their needs, rather than crossing a boundary with your own.

My encouragement is to try to stay unattached to any outcome when sharing this poem. You have chosen to express yourself to this person in poetry, which is a brave and vulnerable thing to do. Let that be enough, and allow space for the other to reveal what they feel in return. Welcome it, whatever it is: you will, by the end of this process, know each other better and hopefully be in closer connection. Which is reason enough for writing them a love poem.

There is a small chance that they laugh at your poem or express dislike of it. This may be a difficult experience for you, having expressed yourself so vulnerably. If this happens, take a breath, thank them for their honesty, allow yourself to feel whatever you feel – and know that your value is not linked to their opinion of your poem, and that you are deserving of love.

Writing more poetry

Now that you’ve given writing a love poem a go, you might feel moved to write more poetry. Do it. Write widely, write wildly. Write for yourself, write for others. Write to be read on the page, write to be heard on the stage. Write about the big stuff, the small stuff, the silly stuff, the serious stuff. Write epics, write haiku. If you feel called to write, write. And then edit. If you like, submit your poems to competitions and for publication. Sign up for an open mic at a poetry or spoken word night and share your words. Put together a pamphlet, a book, and see if anyone wants to read it. Put your poems on Instagram and make TikTok videos of your readings.

And be gentle on yourself as you do all this. The last thing I’d like to offer here is an invitation to love yourself. Do yourself the honour of writing a love poem to you. Lover: you are your own beloved, and you deserve it.

Links & books

For more poetic forms and devices, read ‘Poetry 101’ on the website MasterClass for a good introduction.

Watch this YouTube video for an entertaining performance of the poem ‘When Love Arrives’ (2015) by Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, full of those little details lovers notice about each other.

The book Twenty-One Love Poems (1976) by Adrienne Rich is a brilliant, modern collection of love poems – available on the second-hand market.

In the YouTube video ‘Lines of Love’ (2021), a cardiologist, an artist and a poet (me) get together for a scientifically informed workshop: follow along to make a card and write a poem for your love!

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29 November 2023