Today we’re challenging you to write love poems. While we welcome poems about romantic love, we’re also interested in poems about friendship, family and other kinds of love. Here are some ideas on how to get started…
The challenge: write a poem or poems in some way about love
Some people think all poetry is about love. Here at Young Poets Network, we know that’s not true – and in fact, we’d like to read more of it! Some writers might feel nervous of writing clichés when turning their pen towards love, but the key is to be specific throughout your poem. What can you capture about your particular relationship? We’ve plenty more tips below, and we can’t wait to read your writing.
First, a note on sonnets, which are the classic form for love poems in English. You might want to try and write a sonnet yourself: they are compact, neat poems which have been used by poets for centuries to write about all kinds of love. These days, many poets consider any poem which is fourteen lines and with some kind of change or ‘turn’ in the second half to be a sonnet. But if you want to go more classical, here are some additional rules.
A Shakespearean sonnet (aka a sonnet as Shakespeare wrote them) looks like this:
- three four-line stanzas (or quatrains) following the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef, followed by one rhyming two-line stanza (or couplet) gg;
- the three quatrains lay out a problem question or situation, and the rhyming couplet answers or proposes a solution to the quatrains;
- the change in thought or argument between the quatrains and the final couplet is referred to as the volta, or turn.
A Petrarchan sonnet (or a sonnet as the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca wrote them) looks like this:
- also fourteen lines in total, but made up of one eight-line stanza (or octave) following the rhyme scheme abba cdcd, followed by one six-line stanza (sestet) with the rhyme scheme efef gg;
- the first stanza lays out a problem, question or situation, and the second then answers or proposes a solution to the first;
- the volta happens at the start of the sestet – leaving more time to respond to the initial problem.
You can read more on sonnets here, including some Shakespearean examples.
The sonnet has been traditionally written by white men about women (and though several of Shakespeare’s are about a man, this was largely ignored by subsequent writers), so you might want to think about how you can subvert that male gaze or objectification in your poem. Here are two classics by Black American poet Gwendolyn Brooks which use the sonnet to explore race, war and the body; the Wanda Coleman worked further on what she called ‘the American sonnet’, which contemporary poet Terrance Hayes has adapted even further.
Here’s a lovely sonnet called ‘Cues’ from Lewis Buxton, which is written not for a lover but for his male friend, celebrating male friendship: ‘I’m passing the last cue on the shelf / to a boy I’m so close with I could be playing myself.’
In October, Luke Kennard won one of the biggest prizes in poetry, the Forward Prize for Best Collection, for his book Notes on the Sonnets, which responds irreverently to each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets with 154 prose poems, all set at a house party. It sounds silly, but even as he explodes the form of the sonnet, he’s still writing tenderly about love. Read page 16 here as an example, which ends:
I would like you to lie on top of me in a pile of coats. I would like you to hold me and knock insistently on the top of my head. I would like you to bask in the good thoughts I have about you.
Love languages are one idea about how to identify the ways that we like to give and receive love. They are: acts of service, gifts, physical touch, words of affirmation and quality time. Everyone appreciates all of the languages, but supposedly we all have one or two we prefer most. You can read more about them here. You could think about each of these as a writing prompt: write about a memory of giving or receiving love in one of these ways. For instance, read U.A. Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Atlas’, which is all about acts of service. Frank O’Hara’s classic ‘Having A Coke With You’ is a joyous example of quality time. How can you show love without using the word ‘love’?
A memory of quality time forms part of Seamus Heaney’s grief for his mother in his sequence of eight sonnets titled ‘Clearances’:
by Seamus Heaney
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
Heaney contrasts the seemingly insignificant moment of peeling potatoes with his mother, and the more symbolic and impersonal ‘prayers for the dying’. It’s the private, everyday moments that have the power to move us. Think about that as you’re writing your own love poem.
Celebrate your friends with a poem. Take a lead from Danez Smith: their whole book Homie explores friendship. It opens with ‘my president’, in which they elect their friends, family (and all they love, including Rihanna and ‘my neighbor who holds the door open when my arms / are full of laundry’) as president. Read, too, January Gill O’Neill’s ‘In The Company of Women’. Can you write a similar poem in the language of the things your friends like to do? Or what about ‘Red Brocade’ by Naomi Shihab Nye, which details the time we carve out for our friends: have you done, or been done, a similar kindness?
Don’t forget to love yourself! For inspiration, read Derek Walcott’s ‘Love after Love’, where the speaker learns to love themselves again: ‘Give back your heart / To itself, to the stranger who has loved you / All your life, whom you ignored / For another, who knows you by heart.’ And Foyle Young Poet’s ‘Love Poem to Myself’ is beautifully tender:
Love Poem to Myself
by Cia Mangat
after Jack Underwood
your hair continues to surprise me in its texture after every single wash / like the shock of a photocopier lid realising the other side when it beams white light / I could listen to you listing your banned foods for days / and tell you bad jokes about music as the food of love for even longer / if I pause to consider how long it takes nurses to find your veins / I too blush with warm pride and joy / your ears are unremarkable / and therefore impossible to improve / when I chance upon your face in the curvature of a kettle I am overcome by the urge to blow you kisses / as if we are both tethered to the ground / but neither of us want to take off
Loving something bigger
You might also want to write poems honouring your community, your home, or other non-human things. Take Foyle Young Poet Victoria Fletcher’s poem ‘A Little Bit of Poland in Sudbury Hill’. It’s a brilliant Shakespearean sonnet, and also an ode to her heritage by focusing on a local Polish shop. Find more ideas about writing odes here.
Your poems don’t have to be all about the joys of love and odes to your beloved. There are lots of complex and tricky things about love, starting of course with heartbreak and falling out with your friends. Foyle Young Poet Daniel Wale’s poem ‘Daisy Chains’ only reveals it’s not a simple love poem in the final line. Could you make your poem that subtle?
LGBTQ+ poets also have to deal with judgement, and in some cases violence, from others because of love. In ‘Names’, Mary Jean Chan writes tenderly about loving her partner, and yet fearing saying her name in front of her mother.
Just as when you’re writing about love, the key when writing about the troubles of love is to be specific: don’t tell us about how upset you feel, but show us in images and action. And remember to think about the love underneath that upset – that’s the challenge, after all.
Write a love poem, or poems. As long as your poem is in some way about love – whether it’s romantic, or for friends, family, places or things – you can interpret this however you like. Remember to use specific details and images in your poem. And have fun!
Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook as well as poetry goodies including books and posters.
How to enter
This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is 23:59 GMT, Monday 7 February 2022. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.
Please be aware that Young Poets Network is for young people from any age up to 25, so we won’t publish erotica or graphic descriptions of sex.
Send your poem(s) to [email protected] with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and where you found out about this challenge (e.g. Twitter, YPN email etc.). In the email subject line please write ‘Love poetry challenge’. If you are aged 12 or younger on Monday 7 February 2022, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.
We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group.
If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.
By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity if you are among the winning poets of this challenge, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.
If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at [email protected].
Published December 2022