Poems for Breakups and Divorce

Year

2004

In 1862, when George Meredith wrote the wryly titled "Modern Love" about his failed marriage to Mary Ellen Nicolls, he transformed the tradition of the sonnet sequence as we know it. While unsuccessful and unhappy lovers have populated many of the great sonnet sequences and lover’s complaints, Meredith was among the first to question the nature and purity of the love, even when that love was still new. The resulting poems are disillusioned, rather than despairing, and overflow past the traditional fourteen lines to sixteen, as if what he had to say had extended beyond the smallness of their marriage:

It ended, and the morrow brought the task.
Her eyes were guilty gates, that let him in
By shutting all too zealous for their sin:
Each sucked a secret, and each wore a mask.
But, oh, the bitter taste her beauty had.

The best known contemporary meditations on divorce come from the confessional poets--Anne Sexton, W. D. Snodgrass, and Robert Lowell--who wrote openly about the problems in their marriages and their subsequent divorces. Sometimes, as in Anne Sexton's poem "Break Away," the divorce is treated almost factually; it is yet another strange fact of the life she chooses to lay bare for her readers. There is a direct, unflinching quality to the lines within:

Your daisies have come
on the day of my divorce.
They arrive like round yellow fish,
sucking with love at the coral of our love.
Yet they wait,
in their short time,
like little utero half-borns,
half killed, thin and bone soft.

The poetic tradition surrounding divorce includes meditations on the loss of love as well, sometimes of a more idealized or romantic nature. In Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art" she uses the repetitive structure of the villanelle to reinforce the habitual nature of loss, and argue that she has become accustomed to it, yet inherent in the form lies the trap of the last word--"disaster"--and she must will herself to write it.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Pablo Neruda’s poem, "If you forget me," has a similar sense of fatalistic loss, the impossibility of being reunited:

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

W.D. Snodgrass, on the other hand, writes about the pain of believing his wife will return to him in the poem "Last Time":

Three years ago, one last time, you forgot
Yourself and let your hand, all gentleness,
Reach to my hair, slipping down to caress
My cheek, my neck. My breath failed me; I thought

It might all come back yet, believed you might
Turn back.

For poems about the loss of love or the break-up of a marriage, consider the following:

"We Don't Know How to Say Goodbye" by Anna Akhmatova
"Pity We Were Such a Good Invention" by Yehuda Amichai
"Quick and Bitter" by Yehuda Amichai
"Driving" Dina Ben-Lev
"One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop
"When we two parted" by George Gordon, Lord Byron
"The Afternoon Sun" by C. P. Cavafy
"The Primer" by Christina Davis
"Why should a foolish marriage vow" by John Dryden
"Hymn to a Broken Marriage" by Paul Durcan
"To Earthward" by Robert Frost
"Dear Miss Emily" by James Galvin
"Failing and Flying" by Jack Gilbert
"Donal Óg" by Lady Gregory
"I May After Leaving You Walk Quickly or Even Run" by Matthea Harvey
"This Was Once a Love Poem" by Jane Hirshfield
"Bitch" by Carolyn Kizer
"No Road" by Philip Larkin
"Man and Wife" by Robert Lowell
"To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage" by Robert Lowell
"Modern Love" by George Meredith
"A Renewal" by James Merrill
"Family Reunion" by Jeredith Merrin
"If you forget me" by Pablo Neruda
"Say You Love Me" by Molly Peacock
"A story wet as tears" by Marge Piercy
"Remember" by Christina Rossetti
"Break Away" by Anne Sexton
"For my lover, returning to his wife" by Anne Sexton
"Apart (Les Séparés)" by Louis Simpson
"Heart's Needle" by W. D. Snodgrass
"The Last Time" by W.D. Snodgrass
"A Valediction" by W.D. Snodgrass
"A Book Of Music" by Jack Spicer
"After Love" by Sara Teasdale
"The Gift" by Sara Teasdale
"The Aeneid, Book IV, [So, you traitor]" by Virgil