In this context, "Romantic" poetry refers to "mushy stuff",
not to be confused with the more formal, literary definition:
poetry from the Romantic Era.
Romantic poetry is likely the most popular genre--especially
among young, new poets. It may also be the most difficult. Like
cats with diarrhoea, poets are always looking for new ground.
Therein lies the challenge for the aspiring Elizabeth Barrett
Browning. "How can we say 'I love you' in a
fresh, new way?"
It follows naturally that subtlety and originality are
of paramount importance here. Adolescent
"my baby left me"
lamentations may make rock stars millions as song lyrics but will
simply not cut it here. This might, though:
I am not stuck in quicksand
memories of Nevada
nights gambolling down the strip
oblivious to the oblivion
that daylight would bring.
Sometimes a scar
Is just a scar.
The trick, then, is to avoid saying what we
mean in a way which, paradoxically, ends up saying exactly
what we mean. This is the balance between subtlety and clarity
that we seek. If in doubt, the romantic poet should err on the side
of subtlety. While not quite as critical as it is in other genres,
brevity is important--if only to prevent the work
from deteriorating into a maudlin meander in which subtlety is
bound to be compromised.
Since our task is to avoid cliché and "telling" rather
than "showing", words that the romantic poet must avoid include:
One of the most common errors made by new romantic poets
is that of expressing their own feelings. Poetry is the
property of the poet and the province of the reader.
As such, it is the reader's emotions that we hope
to elicit, not the writer's.
There are 6 billion people on this planet. About half of those have written love poems to the other half. Thus, even before we add in the poems of the past, we realize that there are literally billions of romantic works out there. To say that this is well-trodden ground would be an understatement.
Novice writers are well advised to avoid this genre altogether, but the chances of many following this advice is nil. Hence, if you absolutely must pursue this field, adopt one of these three tried-and-true approaches, ranged in order from the easiest (and most common) to the most difficult (and least common):
There is, in fact, a fourth approach, but it is extremely rare and difficult. It is conceivable that a master poet could write a deliberately "over the top" love poem which, at the risk of looking like self-parody, manages to "out-Browning" Browning (i.e. "Songs from the Portuguese": "How do I love thee, let me count the ways..."). A cautionary note: By most accounts, no poet since Garcia Lorca has succeeded in this approach.
- Describe the individual so that the reader falls in love with him/her. One tack is the "jealous lover" theme, where we note the many other people who love this individual. Two examples from Leonard Cohen would be the line "Many men have loved the bells that you fasten to the rain" and the song "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong". Do not say that you (i.e. the voice) are in love with the person. Make this obvious without saying it. Subtlety!
- Relate prosaic non-romantic aspects and incidents about the person and/or your relationship with him/her and then, at the very end, you might "surprise" your reader with the news of your affection for and/or relationship with the person. Ironically--and this should illustrate the need for subtlety in romantic works--this is sometimes done by denying that you love them, as with Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel #2".
- Compare the individual or relationship to some other experience by describing only the latter, leaving just enough clues for the reader to understand that you are, in fact, describing a love. Note: if the poem is written well enough, it might not matter if the reader "clues in" that you are, in fact, talking about such a love.