Follow me back to ancient Rome for a minute. I want to show you something.
In Roman courts, there were no mugshots used to correctly identify suspects. Courthouses didn’t have sketch artists to draw accused persons, either; instead the physical details of suspects were described in words—from the color of the alleged murderer’s hair all the way down to the length of his toenails. Eye color, physical build, skin tone. Every bruise. Every scar. Every feature of the accused was noted and recorded in detail.
This technique was called effictio. Loosely translated, it means “a portrait in words.”
Pretty handy for making sure you’ve got the right guy.
But of course identifying a criminal isn’t the only use for this effictio technique of head-to-toe description. It’s great for storytelling, and it’s formed the basis of many love poems, too.
Love poetry has a long-running tradition of listing out a paramour’s physical charms, one at a time. Unfortunately, many writers have used this structure to deliver gushy, overblown, insincere descriptions.
Shakespeare saw so many of these over-the-top love poems in his day that he bent the offending poets over his knee and gave them a smart spanking in his 130th sonnet:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun [dull];
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Here Shakespeare’s saying “Look. My love’s not some flawlessly chiseled statue of Aphrodite. I see her clearly and realistically, and I don’t have to dress her up in false flattery. I adore her as she is.” Apparently 16th-century beauty standards were the poetic equivalent of airbrushing and Photoshop, and Shakespeare wrote this sonnet as a kind of answer song to the overblown descriptions other poets wrote.
Admire, but don’t flatter
Let’s say you receive two envelopes in the mail tomorrow morning. Apparently you have not just one, but two secret admirers, and by coincidence each one has happened to send you a love poem on the exact same day. You devil, you.
Tucked inside of each envelope you find a handwritten sonnet from an anonymous writer. Both sonnets are articulate, beautifully rhymed, and carefully hand-lettered.
Tell me, which one do you trust more—the sonnet that puts you on a pedestal? Or do you trust the sonnet that seems more authentic, realistic and clear-eyed?
The line between genuine admiration and mere flattery is thin. As a poet, if you pour on the affection too thick, thoughtful listeners will distrust the song. That’s true whether you’re describing a person, a sunset, or anything else.
Please be real
Imagery is a powerful way to give your listener an aesthetic experience, but don’t feel like every image in your poem has to be picture-perfect. Instead of going on and on about how some character in a love song is some kind of Adonis or goddess (we’re all mortal and imperfect here, don’t lie), why not describe the way she holds the black elastic in her teeth while gathering her hair back? Why not sing about the small thrill that simple gestures send through the song’s narrator?
A smart lover knows that these simple observations mark true affection. And as listeners, we find beauty in all things simple and real.
You don’t want Shakespeare spanking you from beyond the grave. By all means be poetic and decorative with your descriptions… but please, above all, be specific and observant and real.