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A Little Bit of Magic: Joseph Campana on Love Poetry

Dr. Joseph Campana explores the enduring power of poetry, shares some of his favorite love poetry and offers advice on writing a love poem.

Feb 12 , 2018

Image of man and woman in silhouette, reading books

In honor of Valentine’s Day, Cathy Maris, Director of Community Programs, asked Dr. Joseph Campana to explain the enduring power of poetry, to share some of his favorite love poetry and to offer advice on writing a love poem. Dr. Campana is an award-winning poet, Rice University associate professor and Alan Dugald McKillop Chair in English and a Glasscock School instructor who will be teaching two spring poetry courses.

Your course “Love, Praise, Mourn: Reading Sonnets, Odes and Elegies,” explores the power of classical and contemporary poetry. Why is poetry such an enduring means of expressing love and other deep feelings?

We often like to say there are no words for some experiences. Or that we’re speechless. Or that words cannot express what we feel. I sometimes feel that way too, but actually in those moments I want exactly the right language, the powerful and precise language for the moment. Because it’s also the case that sometimes we don’t really know what we’re thinking or feeling until we find that language.

Many people only turn to poetry at life’s peak moments – weddings, funerals, graduations, or even Valentine’s Day – when ordinary language seems inadequate. How can poetry enrich people’s everyday lives?

Poetry surprises us and enlivens us. That’s what it does best. We are surrounded by routine and habit, and language so easily becomes overused and all too ordinary. Poems surprise us out of habit and into new ways of feeling and thinking about ourselves and the world around us. And more often than not, they use ordinary and exhausted language to do so, which is why poems can feel like a little bit of magic.  

What is one of your favorite love poems or lines of love poetry? Why does it appeal to you?

We should all be so lucky to have someone write a poem about us like Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.” That great, disarming title continues into the first line: “is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona.” It’s funny and wry and so specific. It’s full of all the things O’Hara liked to think about – what he was eating and drinking, where he was traveling, and what art he was seeing. When we love, we love in a particular way. It has everything to do with shared objects and places and experiences. How different this is from love poems that prefer general sentiments and platitudes, which can also be very powerful.

And since I spend many of my days teaching older poems, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Shakespeare’s sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”). The poet imagines the whole world despises him. In remembering the beloved, everything suddenly seems okay. “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” This poem feels very now to me despite its age, which clocks in around 400 years! But there’s nothing more beautiful than a setting of this by Rufus Wainwright.

As a poet and a professor of literature, do you have any advice for people who’d like to try their hand at writing a love poem?

Be particular: what can you say to or about the person you love that no one else can? Whatever that is, it still needs to feel sharable with others. A love poem can be built out of any materials – Frank O’Hara is a great example of that. Avoid cliché: we’ve all heard them before and besides, greeting cards already have them (plus prettier paper). Finally, sound like yourself. When we write, our language can be heightened, sure, but if you try to sound like the Queen of England or William Shakespeare, you’re just not you. How will the one you love even recognize you?

Learn more about Dr. Campana’s spring 2018 poetry courses for the public:
•    Love, Praise, Mourn: Reading Sonnets, Odes and Elegies (starting Feb. 20)
•    Poetry Writing Workshop: Love, Praise, Mourn (starting April 10)

About Joseph Campana

Joseph CampanaDr. Joseph Campana, associate professor and Alan Dugald McKillop Chair in English at Rice University, is an award-winning poet, arts writer and widely published scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of three collections of poetry, “The Book of Faces,” “Natural Selections,” which received the Iowa Poetry Prize, and “The Book of Life,” forthcoming. Appearing in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions and Colorado Review, his poems have won awards from Prairie Schooner and The Southwest Review.