Lisa Ampleman Talks About the Modern Romantic Poem

Lisa Ampleman’s new collection of poetry has its roots in a very old form of writing: the love sonnet. Here, she takes a few moments to talk about the poets that most inspired her process.

Sir Edward John's painting, "Erato, Muse of Poetry;" a young woman, thoughtfully posed over a lyre, in a yellow dress and with red wings behind her
Erato, Muse of Poetry, 1870 by Sir Edward John Pynter

For my doctoral exams in 2012, I undertook the daunting task of studying both the courtly love tradition—a medieval and Renaissance/early modern phenomenon for the most part—and the sonnet sequence, which was born in that tradition but persisted over time. As I read about the troubadours and their inheritors, it was very easy to hear the men’s voices. They each sang about an unreachable woman, distant and sometimes cruel, whom they loved with the spirit of a martyr (think: Petrarch for Laura, Thomas Wyatt for Anne Boleyn). These women rarely spoke, and because of the cultural context, they were rarely the poets themselves.

But in my reading I did discover women’s voices—in the cracks and crevices. Trobairitz were female troubadours; though fewer in number than their male counterparts, they too sang of love within courtly circles. In the 1500s, Gaspara Stampa, a Venetian musician, created a sequence in the style of Petrarch.

I also found myself imagining what the women, the “cruel ladies” of the courtly tradition and others not given voice, might say. What did Laura think of Petrarch’s devotion? Or Dante’s wife of his praise for another woman?

As I wrote the book that became Romances, after those doctoral exams, I took that imagining one step further, giving those women voice. I also wrote some adaptation-translations of Gaspara Stampa’s poems, and—almost as a joke at first—I started a sonnet sequence called “Courtly Love (for Courtney Love),” because each time I told a non-English major what I was studying, I had to enunciate carefully, or they heard the name of the 1990s grunge rocker instead.

The book also contains a suite of poems that reproduces the courtly love paradigm, with a speaker (this time a woman) wanting and not quite having a beloved, “The Toxic Unrequited Suite.” Because of the reading I’d done in the contemporary sonnet sequence, though, I was interested in also portraying another kind of love, a mutual one in which the lover sees the beloved for who they truly are, not as an imagined projection, which is what the final section of Romances covers.

All the books mentioned below are a good start to seeing how women writers transform the courtly sonnet sequence into something broader.

book cover of The Complete Poems; a purple-tinged oil painting of a woman with a grassy-headdress

Gaspara Stampa, The Complete Poems, translated by Jane Tylus, makes Rime accessible to those who don’t read Italian. It includes both the sixteenth-century Venetian Italian of Stampa (published by her sister after her death) and Tylus’s translations. Stampa changes the model by focusing on the physicality of love, implying that her interest was (at least for a time) returned, and turning to a new love when the first doesn’t work out.

the cover of "Collected Poems;" an olive drab background with white text

Adrienne Rich’s 21 Love Poems (published on its own in 1976, also in A Dream of a Common Language and in the Collected Poems, 1950–2012) is a series of love poems that describe a mutual relationship between two women. Their form is close to the sonnet range, with 14–16 lines generally, but composed of varying line lengths and no rhyme. Rich’s speaker is very aware of the tradition she’s participating in. For example, in the second poem (“I dreamed you were a poem, / I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . . . / and I laugh and fall dreaming again / of the desire to show you to everyone I love”) she questions whether what she’s doing is a masculine move (“when away from you I try to create you in words, / am I simply using you, like a river or a war?”) or one she can uproot from its heteronormative past.

book cover of "Love, Death...;" a sumptuous photo of pomegranates and pomegranate seeds

Marilyn Hacker, author ofLove, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, like others in the tradition, uses sonnet sequences, but she also includes additional poetic forms—villanelles and sestinas. This collection, sometimes termed a “verse novel,” shows the courtship, relationship, and separation of the speaker and her female (younger) beloved. Hacker’s directness of voice and careful curation of detail create a narrative that shows the range of kinds of romantic love: infatuation, lust, devotion, respect, frustration, and grief.

book cover of the "Late Wife;" an impressionist painting of an unmade bed next to a window

Claudia Emerson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Late Wife hews the farthest from the tradition in this list—that is, it doesn’t make its debt to and/or participation in the history of love poetry explicit. These poems show how love and loss can sit hand in hand, as it details the experience of a divorce and ends with a powerful sequence (mostly sonnets) about a new love, “Late Wife (Letters to Kent).”

Emerson constructs a complex picture of love for a partner whose previous wife died. In “Homecoming,” for example, she describes a video the late wife filmed of the dog seeing her husband’s arrival: “Then, at last, you come home / to look into the camera she holds, / and past her into me—invisible, unimagined / other who joins her in seeing through our / transience the lasting of desire.” The troubadours sought lastingness for their own poetic reputations through desire, a thing that flickers out; Emerson shows us that desire exists partly because of its transience—and that what persists will be a mutual love, not the quick burn of blind infatuation.

book cover of "Romances;" a romantic woodcut of a man and a woman in medieval clothing

Available February 2020

In this subtle and candid collection, Lisa Ampleman mixes contemporary elements and historical materials as she speaks back to the literary tradition of courtly love. Instead of bachelor knights bemoaning their allegedly cruel beloveds, Romances emphasizes the voices of female troubadours, along with those of historical figures such as Dante’s wife, Petrarch’s Laura, and Anne Boleyn. As her poems reflect on popular romantic ideas about the past, the means by which elegies romanticize the dead, or the conventional romance of a happy marriage, Ampleman addresses a range of romantic entanglements: courtly and commonplace, sentimental and prosaic, toxic and mutual.

Lisa Ampleman is the author of Full Cry. Her poetry has appeared in the Kenyon Review OnlineImage, the Massachusetts ReviewPoetry, and elsewhere. She lives in Ohio, where she is the managing editor of the Cincinnati Review and the poetry series editor for Acre Books.

Follow LSU Press on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.