Honey? You awake?
There’s no shortage of romantic verse for people who have just fallen in love. But no one waxes poetic about the soft glow of a smartphone screen, or the sweet caress of sweatpants.
So John Kenney, a “longtime married person,” has filled this void with a slim volume called Love Poems (for Married People), in which he celebrates what happens to romance after years (and years, and years) of partnership.
One poem asks: “Are you in the mood?”
Let’s put the kids down.
Have a light dinner.
Maybe not drink so much.
And do that thing I would rather do with you than with anyone else.
Lie in bed and look at our iPhones.
The book started a few years ago as a rather hastily written humor column in The New Yorker and “it got a pretty good response,” Kenney says. Every year on Valentine’s Day, it resurfaces.
“Whoever you are … newly married, longtime married, whatever kind of relationship you’re in, I think there are some universal truths about life together,” Kenney says.
Take, for example, “Bedtime”:
We are in the bedroom in our underpants.
Let’s turn the lights down.
“Off,” I guess, is the technical term.
Maybe try a towel under the door, where that sliver of light is coming in?
What if we just cuddle, and by cuddle I mean not actually touching—
Each of us at the far edge of our own side of the bed—
Then close our eyes for the next seven hours or so?
I like you.
That last, passionate line, “I like you,” is actually a direct quote from Kenney’s wife, Lissa. “Last Valentine’s Day it was the signature on the card she gave me,” he explains.
Kenney wrote the book over the course of about six weeks and says his wife played a crucial role in the editing process. “[I] would stand by like a small dog and wait for her to laugh,” Kenney says. “Oftentimes that did not happen, so we nixed those poems.”
For the record, Lissa did not approve of the use of the word “underpants.”
“When the piece was first published in The New Yorker, a very sincere person came over and said to my wife: ‘I’m so sorry that John wrote about your underpants,’ …” Kenney recalls. “She smiled and said, ‘It’s OK, we’re in discussions to live in separate houses.’ “
Kenney found it helpful to solicit poem ideas from friends and colleagues. “The closer you can get to the truth in these things, I think, the better they are,” he says.
Poems in the book include titles such as:
“Is this the right time for that?”
“Emily’s name isn’t Rachel”
“What time should we leave for the airport?”
“Would it be possible to stop volunteering me for things?”
Despite the whole book being tongue-in-cheek, Kenney did work hard to craft something that was at least poetry-adjacent. “They’re not poetry, but they certainly aspire to be poetic,” he says.
In the acknowledgments, he thanks a list of “real poets” he loves — Marie Howe, Mary Oliver, John O’Donohue, David Whyte, Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins. “I don’t think I have a deep wellspring of knowledge about poetry, but I did want to mention to people that there is good verse out there,” Kenney says. He was 18 when he saw Heaney read for the first time, and Collins’ poem “The Lanyard” was part of his wedding ceremony.
The last poem in the book is called “To Lissa. No kidding.”
“It was one of the last poems I wrote, and I hesitated about whether to include it,” Kenney says. “My wife and I have been together for, I don’t know, 14 years, I think? (Although as she says: It feels like 20).”
They’ve been through tough times, they have two kids, and Kenney thought at the very least he could include a funny poem in the book for her.
“But everything I started putting down wasn’t so funny — it was actual emotion,” he says.
So he wrote as honest a poem as he could and showed it to her before publication.
“She was like, ‘Yeah … that’s sweet. Did you get milk?’ “
“She was very touched,” Kenney says.
Gustavo Contreras and Courtney Dorning produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.