Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Lon Otto’s “Love Poems”

Read and hear this story.

The story is also available in Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas & Tom Hazuka. W. W. Norton & Co., 1992.

The Love Letter by Eugen de Blaas

Many fine flash fiction pieces have several twists within a single story. One such twisted tale is Lon Otto’s “Love Poems.” Part of the brilliance of this particular story, along with the artful twists, lies in the “not said”– where the writer makes use of suggestion, insinuation, implication so that the reader co-creates the story and comes up with a character sketch of a rascal of the philandering kind. The little story also goes beyond its surface level and steps into the realm of meta-fiction.

The Nameless Character and the Twists in His Tale
The brief two-page story begins with a nameless man who has written a Valentine’s Day love poem for his lover. The man is quite taken with his poem, is impressed with its passion, emotion, tenderness expressing “emotion he hardly realized himself capable of,” “like the tenderness of a better man.” The poem is so good he can hardly believe it; it is the best he has ever written and he reads it out loud over and over. He will mail it to his lover that night so she will receive it on Valentine’s Day.

He claims the woman to whom he will mail the poem loves him for his letters, and she will not show the poem to anyone because she’s a “private person”– one of the qualities he loves about her. But she will be impressed, the poet’s quite certain, with the poem’s “beauty and passion.” He sends the poem to her in his own “interesting handwriting,” and he views the timing as clever since it is a love poem which will arrive on Valentine’s Day.

Twists and Complications
Then the poet types up a copy for his own files and decides to send a copy to a prestigious literary magazine– one in which he has so far been unable to get his work accepted for publication.

Enter a twist, a complication: If he includes the dedication to his lover in the poem, it could lead to embarrassment and trouble– with his wife! So what looked like a passionate poem to a lover turns out to be from a man who’s married and who is carrying on a secret affair.

The man decides to give a copy of the poem to his wife, too. She will likely think it was written for her, since the poet has cleverly omitted the dedication. And either woman, lover or wife, who might see the poem in the literary magazine, should it be accepted for publication, would likely assume it is the poem written he had written especially for her. Smart move.

Another Twist/ Complication
Another twist enters the story. The poet then decides to send a copy to another poet, a woman in England who “really understands his work.” He writes the poem out by hand (as he did with the poem he sent his lover), and includes a dedication to the English woman, using her initials. He plans “that she will think of him thinking of her…” a few days after Valentine’s Day since it will take longer to mail the poem to England. This woman will probably think, like his wife and his present lover, that the poem was written with her in mind. Our philanderer uses his poem to work on yet another woman.

The Poem for One Becomes a Poem for Many
In this story we’re given a Valentine’s Day poem, a single poem of professed passionate and tender love, multiplied and potentially fruitful for the poet’s philandering ways, and which is sent to various people for various purposes. Perhaps this is what some writers mean when they refer to “multiple submissions.” The single love poem becomes a series of love poems (plural, and hence the plural of the title) and with each inclusion or exclusion of dedications the poem becomes a new poem with personal meaning to different people.

With this story Lon Otto gives us a clever piece of writing with a clever plot and clever twists. What was that line from the film The Dead Poet’s Society? Something like learn to write poetry because chicks dig it. The poet in this story seems to understand that just a little too well.

But the story can also be read as a commentary on writing in general. The story also rises above its surface level by also being a story on how we might get the most mileage out of our literary creations—how we might edit our work to make it appeal to several readers. In this short-short, a lot of story is effectively condensed into an exceptionally small space. Part of the pleasure lies in the unpacking of the interesting piece.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Lon Otto:  Lon Otto is a Professor Emeritus in English at the university of St. Thomas. Otto has published three collections of fiction.

Image: The Love Letter by Eugen de Blaas (1843-1931). Oil on canvas mounted on masonite. 35 x 46 inches. 1904. Public domain.