How do we love poetry? Let us count the ways

Valentine’s Day was dreary, drizzly and gray.

Inside Kelly Writers House, though, students, faculty and community members gathered to share “Loved Poems and Poems About Love,” no lover required.

Guests chattered and balanced plates of pink refreshments — M&Ms, pink wafer cookies and watermelon — on their knees until, at 3:05 p.m., the featured “beloved guests,” so described by Writers House Director Kerry Sherin, took their seats in the curve of the bay window.

After Assistant Professor of English Max Cavitch, dubbed “Dr. Love” by Sherin, introduced the readers, the love and poetry began with a reading of “XVII” by Pablo Neruda. Heads bowed over the photocopied handouts as Associate Professor of English Herman Beavers read. “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, / in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”

Creative Writing Program Director Greg Djanikian followed with a second poem by Neruda, moving the crowd to a communal sigh in the silence which followed.

The readings swept through many interpretations of love, from Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Po to Rita Dove’s love for the community library of her youth.

Associate Professor of English Robert Perelman, explaining his choice of Frank O’Hara’s “Cornkind,” said: “I liked the way it teased the whole notion of love and how corny the whole thing can be. I think Frank O’Hara is one of the best love poets. He gets there by way of sarcasm, silliness and snideness.”

John Timpane, Philadelphia Inquirer commentary page editor and a poet himself, launched into his reading of Emily Dickinson without explanation. After he finished, Timpane said, “This poem reminds me of lying in bed with my wife, having one of those floating conversations, and one of us will say, ‘God, I hope I die first.’”

After the readings, Sherin started the discussion by asking about the relationship between a poem and a poet. Djanikian received chuckles with his response. “The point of a good love poem is intimacy,” he said. “That’s the funny business about reading and making public our love poems. Most of us don’t videotape our ‘other’ activities.”

After half the back of the room slipped out early, those who remained contemplated how to write a good love poem. Timpane offered a closing reality check. “The need to write a poem comes out of a lack of attainment,” he said. “Once you have attained, you are busy being deliriously happy. You write once you are on the slope again.”


Originally published on March 1, 2001