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The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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Loving and learning love letter poems

An SMU class invites students to explore and write about love.
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Katie Fay
Professor Shertok Lama sits with his class in a group circle as they read their poems to each other.

A little over ten students sit in a tight circle, each with shaky breath, and await their turn to recite their warm-up poems written within the alliterate constraints of a specific sound – popping P’s, affectionate A’s or seductive S’s. At the end of each poem, SMU Professor Shertok Lama leads the rest of the class in supportive snaps to quiet the room’s whispered mutterings of approval.

Lama, an award-winning visiting writer-in-residence and Hughes Fellow, goes by the pen name Samyak Shertok. He says he chose to teach a “Love Letter Poetry” class to ease new students into learning the fundamentals of poetry while exploring the complexity of an emotion like love.

Professor Lama writes his lecture on word choice in poetry on the white board. (Katie Fay)

“Obviously there’s romantic love, but there’s also familial love, sibling love, and friendship love,” he said. “I thought this [class] was welcoming – it’s relevant and an easy way to get into poetry.”

Greg Brownderville, an SMU English professor who studies holidays as a hobby, says that poetry has been a literary tradition associated with Valentine’s Day as far back as Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls from the 1300s. In this period, Valentine’s Day was described as the day birds chose their mate.

This concept appeared in works by John Gower as well, Brownderville said.

Almost one hundred years later, in 1440, John Lydgate’s poem to Henry V’s widow, Queen Katherine, solidified the connection between the holiday and romantic human relationships.

“We don’t know whether the connection was there back in Chaucer’s day, or if it arose in courtly life somewhere between Chaucer and Lydgate,” Brownderville said.

Nevertheless, since the times of Chaucer and Lydgate, love poems have become synonymous with the holiday. Lama, however, sees a distinct difference between love poems and love letter poems. He says love letter poems entice the reader to care and connect with the object of the writer’s affection.

“Love poems, as opposed to love letter poems, don’t have to be necessarily trying to connect with someone,” he said. “So perhaps for me, it’s about how you connect with someone else.”

Moreover, Lama believes love letter poems are an important art form that should be preserved.

“Letters are one of the oldest ways to communicate, yet sadly, it’s also an endangered species of communication,” Lama said. “This is also a way of me saying, let’s try to save it a little longer.”

Whether it is one of the 21 love sonnets by Adrienne Rich or a mournful poem to those who’ve died; Lama says that a sense of intimacy is what determines a love letter poem’s ability to be great because of its ability to make readers feel. His students couldn’t agree more.

“When you’re reading something, there is an understanding that’s shared between the sender and the recipient,” Gavin Hill, a senior political science major in the class said.

“There is a sense of intimacy [that makes them great], but also the ability to reveal and construct things both about the sender and its recipient and their relationship with each other,” Joe Ridgeway, a junior English major said.

One of Lama’s favorite love letter poems is Sonnet 17 by Pablo Neruda because of one of the stanza’s rejection of the cliché of love being represented by a red rose.

“Sometimes I think that reminds me of people,” he said. “Our loved ones who are with us, like quietly unsung heroes, who are always beside us, but they never see any kind of recognition.”

The class gives the last student their deserving snaps, and silence falls on the room. Moments later, papers, pencils and computers are stuffed into bags and students move around their desks. Over the noise of it all, Lama reminds students to take a postcard to write their poems on.

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About the Contributor
Katie Fay
Katie Fay, Arts & Life Editor
As the Arts and Life Editor, Katie keeps the campus up to date on current and cultural events on and off campus through her reporting and work with the podcast studio. She also occasionally works with the social media team to further engage audiences online.