Searching for Love Poems
Are all the great poets dead?
In mid July of 2020, I opened my browser and searched for ‘love poems.’ Above the results, Google returned a carousel — a horizontally scrolling menu containing poems, each identified with a title and image that linked to more information.
Of over thirty poems in the carousel, only two were authored by women: “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath and “Oriri” by Marie Stopes.
Curious, I tried a few other searches. ‘Poems’ returned fifty-one poems, five of which were authored by women; ‘Great poets’ returned fifty-one poets, all dead, and only seven women among them. ‘‘Good poets’ included thirteen women; ‘published poets’, which I tried in early August, returned twenty-one. I tried these searches several times over the course of a few days and the results varied a little, but I always found more women when I searched for ‘good poets’ than when I looked for ‘great’ ones.
With the eye-catching portraits and top-of-the-results-page placement, the poetry carousels command considerable attention (according to Google’s keyword planner, we search for ‘love poem’ between 100 thousand and 1 million times each month) and imply importance. As I scrolled through the poems, I felt like I was being given ‘the answer’ — the most relevant results, culled and presented neatly at the top. I also felt that the gender imbalance could land the search results in the “The Bottom of the Barrel” section of VIDA’s annual publishing gender tally.
Unlike the search results below them, the carousels at the top do not link to a source (or sources). I do not know the curation criteria — why Mary Oliver came up when I searched for ‘good poet’ but not ‘great poet’ or why thirteen of the love poems were Shakespeare’s, but Maya Angelou, who appears as a ‘great poet,’ had no love poems included. The carousels are simply presented without explanation.
What was clear to me was that the curation system, whatever its nature, had opinions. Some poets were great. Some, only good.
How about bad poets, I wondered.
‘Bad poets’ returned no carousel — just the familiar search results, with the top spot held by a Medium story titled ‘You’re Probably a Bad Poet.’
Instead of a carousel, a search for ‘bad poetry’ returned a panel of images titled ‘Images for bad poetry’ that featured three rows of thumbnails, each bearing what was determined to be terrible verse. I clicked the bad poetry image in the upper-left corner, a white rectangle displaying a hybrid Emily Dickinson/AI-generated version of ‘Because I could not stop for Death.’
‘And we were still there,’ the poem concludes.
I’d actually noticed the poem images in my earlier searches. These images appeared beneath the love poem carousel and above the rest of the search results and were categorized in groups that included: ‘romantic’, ‘true love’, ‘deep’, ‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘crush’, ‘famous’, ‘forever’, and ‘beautiful.’
Selecting ‘true love,’ I was presented with a set of love poem images that together resembled a red and lavender bruise. In addition to short texts (e.g., ‘When I can’t say it with words, look into my eyes and you’ll find Infinite True Love I can’t vocalize”) these love poem images feature hearts, roses, and lovers, almost all young, paired male/female.
I was reminded of Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s remark about his poem, May: “This poem begins by naming the fraught genre of which it’s part, love poetry, and thereby initiates a necessary contention with all of the historical problems of that genre: misogyny, heterosexism, racism, and apparent apoliticality among them.” I was struck both by the ambition of technology — curating not just poems, but love poems — and also the biases and assumptions the algorithmically curated work together revealed.
I found O’Brien’s work on the Academy of American Poets website, where I was also looking for love poems. My search brought me to a curated list of love poems, and I scrolled through both the Classical and Contemporary collections, where I read the work of 463 poets.
Based on the pronouns in the bios, I counted 209 female and 249 male poets (several bios use the gender-neutral ‘they’ as well), and though a search for ‘great poets’ and ‘great poetry’ did not return a splashy carousel containing 51 results, I much preferred its absence.
I learned about the work of George Moses Horton, the first African American to publish a book, which he did while living in slavery. I read and reread Ada Limón’s The Raincoat, Kaveh Akbar’s Ways to Harm a Thing, Carolina Ebeid’s Punctum / Metaphor, June Jordan’s Poem for Haruko.
At times, my first thought upon reading a love poem was: but this is not a love poem. And then I would think about the work anew — how an elegy for a friend or teacher is an expression of love, how the end of a relationship is as much a part of love as the heady initial stage is, how love for a child, a parent, a friend, and the self may not be the love we think of when we see a red heart or a dozen red roses, but is also ‘true love,’ ‘deep love,’ and ‘beautiful.’
Though many of the poems featured on the Academy of American Poets website have aged into the public domain, many of the poets are also alive, which after my time in the Google poetry carousels, was also welcome.
Ultimately, I wish I could turn Google’s carousels off — not just for myself, but anyone who might begin and end their search for poets and poetry there. For now, however, if you are looking for love poems, I suggest you scroll past Google’s carousels, or better yet, simply head over to https://poets.org.