Over the decades, love letters and poetry have changed and shaped as society evolved, and our ideas on romance and sexuality have shifted as well. However, at their core, they remain about what they have always been about: love.

In today’s world, traditional styles of showing love, such as letters or poems, have become less relevant. However, Kathryn Wichelns, an associate professor of English at the University of New Mexico, still believes that poetry and love letters are important for their ability to showcase previously taboo forms of love as well as their unique ability to express certain emotions.

“Humans have always needed to express romantic or sexual desires that aren’t considered valid in their societies. Queer love letters and poetry throughout history are just one example of that. Poetic writing gives us unique ways of expressing both passion and the sense of alienation that can come along with it,” Wichelns wrote to the Daily Lobo. “That’s one reason why so many of the love letters or poems we now see as great were produced by people writing from comparatively marginal positions romantically, as that was defined in their time and place.”



Within this train of thought, Wichelns also pointed out how societal shifts affect how the love writings of old are viewed nowadays.

“There are important things that we lose as well as gain as cultures change. But sometimes what we categorize as ‘love poetry’ from earlier periods really isn’t sexy today,” Wichelns wrote. “I think we read Andrew Marvell’s 1681 ‘To His Coy Mistress’ differently in an era that sees mutually enthusiastic consent as a basic necessity for romance, for example.”

“To His Coy Mistress” is a poem where the speaker uses time as a coercion technique to convince his mistress to lay with him immediately, an aspect of the poem that could be seen as problematic in a society that strives for consent in all aspects of a relationship.

This isn't the only way Wichelns finds writings on love to have changed over the years. Those who are addressed by authors in their love writings have also changed over time.

“I think in earlier periods, we sometimes made more space for nonnormative and/or nonromantic forms of love. People participating in various oral and written poetic traditions have expressed forms of nonromantic attachment that don’t fit into our narrow contemporary sense of which relationships deserve love poems: the love we feel for close friends, our children, our families, our ancestors, our ideas of the divine, our nonhuman companions and so on," Wichelns wrote.

The ways we understand ideas like race, gender and sexuality in our relationships with ourselves and each other shape our views on what we define as love. Even our understanding of medium and genre can shape how we view writings on love, according to Wichelns.

“Can graffiti on a bus seat be a letter? Can a tweet be a love poem? Can rap lyrics be a sonnet — or can they just be truly great poetry while bearing absolutely no resemblance to Shakespeare?,” Wichelns wrote. “Do writers who don’t look, act, live, love, think or produce the way we do evoke desire, longing, vulnerability, fear, joy — all that complex brew involved in a love letter or poem — in ways that punch us in the gut and give us chills? The answer to all of those questions is yes.”

No matter who a love writing is dedicated to or the form it takes, Wichelns thinks there is one aspect that winds through all writings on the subject.

“I think the most important thing to hold onto for any intimate communication is that it should be an expression of a shared truth. The form that takes depends on the relationship,” Wichelns wrote. “You actually can’t and shouldn’t recycle most of the time, but you … need to find a shape that the person recognizes. It should feel simultaneously new and familiar, made just for them.”

Elizabeth Secor is a beat reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at culture@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @esecor2003