with critique by Tracy Koretsky
there and you are not
like the dizzy sorrows that are mine
lining my shirt, frosting my drink
as I walk across downtown Calcutta
my beloved misery
where your smiles light up the stairs
and my cigarettes endless
like your days and ways
that are my sorrows, my ins and outs
because you are there and you are not
Copyright 2010 by Prasenjit Maiti
with critique by Tracy Koretsky
How do you say I love you
The second million times
After you've used up all the special looks
Unexpected flowers and quotes from favorite books
I can't think of any more places to walk alone together
That we haven't walked along before
And the only way I can surprise you with a visit on the phone
Is to call someday when I know you're not at home
There isn't another place on your soft skin
That I can give a loving touch
We covered all of that long ago
When our lips learned every loving kiss
And our passions every loving way to go
Is it possible that love only has a million signs
I guess that's what I'm trying to say
That, and how'd you like to start over
Like we just met yesterday
Copyright 2010 by Larry Pontius
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
Love poems—they're been with us at least 4,000 years. Type the single word "poem" into Google and the first item you are offered is a link to love poems. No single subject rushes the poet more breathlessly to his desk, drunk with overpowering emotion, a-tingle with vivid imagery. But given both the love poem's long history and arguable surfeit, however is our poet to find anything new enough, fresh enough, not only to be worthy of his exquisite condition, but of its precious object? And, more importantly to us, as readers and contesters, how is it possible to write a love poem that a third party might be interested to read? The answer, perhaps, has something to do with strategy, because, let's face it, the love poem is a poem on a mission. Its objective: seduction.
This month, in celebration of Valentine's Day, I'll take an appreciative look at two very successful love poems that could not possibly be more different, from authors writing from locales that—beside their heat—could not be more different either, with a particular focus on their strategy. The first, "You Are", is a brief, intense lyric by Dr. Prasenjit Maiti from Calcutta, India, who calls himself "a political scientist by occupation and a writer by compulsion". "The Second Million Times", a superbly crafted light-rhyme, was sent in by Larry Pontius of Florida, who has had a long and distinguished career in advertising.
Maiti's strategy is the simplest and the perhaps the wisest: the most important word in a seduction is "you". As a poet, he recognizes that overusing his most important word would diminish its potency. Look where he places it: the first word of the title, and the first line and their echo in the last two lines, giving this poem both shape and the sense that the poem will continue on as the poet walks in the hot night.
Between these lines Maiti pulls the reader along with multiple sound repetitions. He begins by grounding us in physicality. This poem is between the object "you" and the poet's body; as readers, we are just eavesdropping. With "my beloved misery" the poem pivots elegantly. Maiti has chosen to use no end punctuation enabling just this sort of ambiguous enjambment. Does the phrase refer to Calcutta? Or to the object of his love? Or neither—is it parenthetical, or voiced as if within a sigh?
The thread of sound repetition continues as the referent opens out: we see the lamps in the stairwells, the ember end of his cigarette, made so poignant by the reversal of the adjective and noun. What the eighth and ninth lines lack in specific or sensory image, they make up for in sonority. The heavy rhymes work almost like a pendulum through them. In tone, they almost whine.
All this, the result of too much exquisite pining. Oh, what could be more romantic than that? I feel certain that his beloved will want to race to him. Mission accomplished.
Pining is not, however, the position Larry Pontius finds himself in. The opposite. His long-time sweetheart is still happily by his side. How to tell her he loves her in a new way? Oh, what could be more romantic than that?
For his strategy, Pontius relies far more on design and what is probably the clue to sustaining love: gentle humor. Though as a humorous poem, this one is full of surprises.
It does not scan, for one thing—these lines defy a metered reading. Pontius chooses "alone together/along before" and "every loving way to go" and all the superfluous syntax of lines seven and eight because they complicate his rhymes, undermining expected rhythms and waking up the ear.
The lines break down as four sentences, which the poet packs with rhymes, though choosing to end with them only in lines three through eight. In other words, as soon as the reader comes to expect rhyme, the poet gives them something else. Line nine begins the third sentence, as in a popular song, and is the one sentence that takes five lines to contain. He gives us a new rhyme pattern in the last four lines anchoring the poem not only with the hard rhyme of "say" and "yesterday", but also with "million signs" and "million times"—connecting the last four lines to the beginning of the poem.
The other thing that the first and last four lines have in common is that they are both questions. Only two sentences are: the first and the last. Rather than have all four sentences ask questions, Pontius holds our interest by taking us through a list of increasing value.
Notice how almost every noun has an adjective in this piece. Notice how these adjectives increase the importance or intensity of the noun. Yet, even with the adjectives they are not specific. The poet allows the reader to supply detail, in a sense, making his poem more generally applicable—a desirable quality in a commercial poem.
Look how with "any more", and "only way", and "isn't another", Pontius completely forecloses any prospects for our hero to achieve his desired goal. He "raises the stakes" as the fiction writers say. But before all hope is lost, proffers an invitation—my dear, shall we fall in love again?
Who could help but smile, and be touched, and for a moment, love the poet for writing it. Mission accomplished once again. Ah, the love poem, may we write them always.
Where could a poem like "You Are" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Tiger's Eye Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 28
Semiannual journal offers prizes up to $500 for unpublished poems; open to emerging writers
National Federation of State Poetry Societies Awards
Postmark Deadline: March 15
Wide array of prizes up to $1,500 for poems in various styles and themes; some categories are members-only; no simultaneous submissions
Saturday Writers One-Page Poem Contest
Postmark Deadline: March 15
Missouri literary society offers prizes up to $100 for unpublished poems
JBWB Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by March 31
British writer Jacqui Bennett's website offers quarterly contests with prizes up to 100 pounds; enter and pay by mail or email
Where could a poem like "The Second Million Times" be submitted?
Words of Love Writing Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 20
Prizes up to $300 for love poems, stories and love letters, from the Writers' Workshop of Asheville, NC; fee includes critique
Chistell Writing Contest
Entries must be received by February 28
Free contest offers prizes up to $100 for poetry and short fiction by writers aged 16+ who have never been published in a major publication; no simultaneous submissions
Oregon State Poetry Association Contests
Postmark Deadline: March 1
Twice-yearly contest offers prizes up to $100 in categories including traditional verse, humor, open theme
Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: March 31
Prizes up to $1,000 and anthology publication for unpublished poems, from an independent small press in Connecticut whose motto is "Delight, entertain and educate"
These poems and critique appeared in the February 2010 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.