Love Poem

by John Frederick Nims

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The Poem

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“Love Poem” is a twenty-four-line poem in six stanzas of four lines each; the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme. Although the oddly generic title is an accurate description of the poem, its very generality also provides the reader with a subtle clue that this may not be a traditional example of love poetry.

Indeed, in the poem’s first three words, the speaker directly addresses his beloved as “My clumsiest dear.” The woman he loves, as the reader quickly learns, breaks nearly everything that encounters her “quick touch.” Her hands wreak disasters—they “shipwreck vases”—and chip glasses. They are like proverbial bulls in a china shop, he says, and they catch in fine cloth like the burrs of weeds. The poem’s first four stanzas follow an alternating pattern in which stanzas 1 and 3 depict the woman’s clumsiness and stanzas 2 and 4 describe the qualities that make the speaker love her in spite of it.

In stanza 2, the tone suddenly becomes gentler as he states that her clumsiness disappears where “ill-at-ease” people with troubles are concerned. She can make a refugee, standing uncomfortably in the doorway, feel at home. She “deftly” steadies the drunkard for whom the very floor seems to be moving. Stanza 3 returns to her awkwardness in the physical world, humorously explaining that she has no depth perception—a dangerous situation when traffic is involved. She is “the taxi driver’s terror.” Having no idea how close anything is, she shrinks from distant approaching headlights but tries to dash across the street in front of streetcars that are practically upon her.

Yet in “traffic of wit,” the poet says in stanza 4, she is an expert. When it comes to words and, more important, to “people and love,” she can move with complete comfort and control. In the stanza’s final line, he quietly states that this quality makes him love her, makes him devoted to her. Stanza 5 returns to the humorous tone, but now her clumsiness and his love for her come together in the same lines. Never mind the spilt coffee and lipstick stains on his clothes, he says; love creates a heaven that is unbreakable. Moreover, the bourbon that she spills will even provide the “glory” to buoy up their souls to that heaven.

In the final stanza, the breaking of glasses seems almost celebratory, like glasses purposely broken after a toast or during a marriage ceremony. The sound is music to the poet’s ears because he realizes that the clumsiness is an inseparable part of the unique person whom he loves. The poem’s final two lines provide the same sort of summation that the last two lines of a sonnet, that most traditional form of love poetry, often do: “For should your hands drop white and empty/ All the toys of the world would break.” The poet drops the humorous tone that has recurred throughout the poem, admitting the seriousness of his love for the woman and confessing that without her, clumsiness and all, life would be silent and joyless.

Forms and Devices

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One of the most notable features of “Love Poem” is its balance between humor and tenderness. John Frederick Nims uses the technique of hyperbole (extreme exaggeration) skillfully to help create that balance. Hyperbolic overstatement was once a common technique of traditional love poetry; the poet would declaim his lover’s (or would-be lover’s) overwhelming beauty and state that without her he would surely waste away and die. Nims, however, turns the use of hyperbole within the context of love poetry upside down: He exaggerates his beloved’s faults.

The woman he is...

(This entire section contains 389 words.)

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addressing does not merely accidentally break vases; her hands “shipwreck” them. Not a glass or two, but “all glasses” are chipped by her touch. Her reactions to traffic in the street are almost cartoonish; she “shrinks” in terror from distant headlights or “leaps” directly in front of streetcars. Nims expands her confusion to cosmic proportions, encompassing all time and space. Misjudging time (she is always late) and distance, she is “A wrench in clocks and the solar system.” She has spilled enough bourbon to float their very souls. By the last stanza, she seems to be smashing glasses constantly, “early and late.”

Yet Nims does balance those descriptions with the more traditional uses of overstatement. She may chip “all” glasses, but she is also adept at helping “all ill-at-ease fidgeting people.” The poet himself is “all devotion.” The final two lines provide the last hyperbolic statement and possess a seriousness that perfectly balances the poem’s sense of whimsy; her death would break “All the toys of the world.”

Nims is generally a traditionalist when it comes to poetic form, writing with careful attention to structure. “Love Poem” is written in four-line stanzas, the most traditional of forms in English lyric poetry. The second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme; the rhymes are simple and unstartling. Within this framework, however, one finds effective use of imagery that is both precise and surprising. The word “apoplectic,” for example, in “red apoplectic streetcars,” personifies the inanimate streetcar while reiterating its red color and describing the panic of the driver hitting the brake at the instant the woman leaps in front of him. Similarly, in the image of her “lipstick grinning on our coat,” the “grinning” both personifies the lipstick mark and implies the joy of their love.