This is the first installment in a new weekly feature I am calling The Poetry Mixtape. Each week, I will share a poem that has held special meaning for me or taught me something about writing or the world. After a brief explanation and the poem text (or link to text), I may offer a question or point to consider for writing your own poem.
“Love Poem” by J. Frederick Nims
Knowing that I love to read and write, and have loved to do so since I was young, people have given me poems as gifts throughout my life. This poem, a staple in many literature anthologies, is special to me for a couple of reasons. It was given to me twice when I was in high school: once by my older brother, who thought I would like the language. I was writing songs at the time, so most of my poetry included rhyme, and he also said the first five lines reminded him of me. About a year later, a high school boyfriend also said that the poem reminded him of me, yet he focused more on the last two lines, which are the most overtly romantic in the poem. (Yes, you read correctly. I was lucky enough to have both siblings and boyfriends who read poems in high school.)
Nims’s piece still resonates with me both personally and as a treasure trove of diction. I am clumsy and disorganized and unpredictable, but also like to think that I am witty and child-like and at ease with people. I think that this poem works as a tribute to its subject. Back then, it also functioned as a catalyst for me to seek out a range of poetry beyond “big-name” canon poets to which I had been exposed in school; it also showed me skillful use of sound, line break and rhyme.
J. Frederick Nims
My clumsiest dear, whose hands shipwreck vases,
At whose quick touch all glasses chip and ring,
Whose palms are bulls in china, burs in linen,
And have no cunning with any soft thing
Except all ill-at-ease fidgeting people:
The refugee uncertain at the door
You make at home; deftly you steady
The drunk clambering on his undulant floor.
Unpredictable dear, the taxi drivers’ terror,
Shrinking from far headlights pale as a dime
Yet leaping before apopleptic streetcars—
Misfit in any space. And never on time.
A wrench in clocks and the solar system. Only
With words and people and love you move at ease;
In traffic of wit expertly maneuver
And keep us, all devotion, at your knees.
Forgetting your coffee spreading on our flannel,
Your lipstick grinning on our coat,
So gaily in love’s unbreakable heaven
Our souls on glory of spilt bourbon float.
Be with me, darling, early and late. Smash glasses—
I will study wry music for your sake.
For should your hands drop white and empty
All the toys of the world would break.
The sounds in this poem are skillful. The drunk clambering on his undulant floor has a swaying motion as its stutters out the short u sounds. In the second to last stanza, the l, g, and f sounds are skillfully woven throughout the four lines, but not in a typical alliterative way. The last stanza does the same with w and s sounds.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun…”) is often put forth as the penultimate example of a love poem that explores the lover’s faults. His sonnet, a conceit to mock traditional love poems, only recants the “hurtful” statements in the final couplet –
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Nims, however, covers both sides of the coin deftly, faulting the lover for her clumsiness, then praising her ease with people in need. The speaker then bemoans her unpredictable and scattered nature, but recognizes her charm and love for people as more important. At the end of the poem, he is willing to suffer all of her faults because, without her, all of the joy will leave his world. This back-and-forth denigration/celebration of the lover is so lovely and balanced and real that the poem has remained a favorite of mine for over 30 years. I have yet to write a love poem that has this balance.
If you’d like to write:
Try to write a poem about a person close to you that both celebrates their best qualities and admits their flaws. If you want an extra challenge, use a rhyme scheme of your choosing.