Today is Valentine’s. I know, I know–our feelings about this pseudo-holiday fluctuate, often with the absence or presence of passionate, romantic love in our current situation. I for one, in spite of all my romantic failures, still believe in the magic of love. I celebrate all kinds of love, from the bubbly, butterfly feeling of a new romance, through the heartache of loss, and, if all goes well, to the quieter, but bedrock-strong affection in an enduring marriage. Love is somehow both mysterious and mundane, and poets have been musing on the subject since poetry began. On this Valentine’s day, we invite you to regale your love with sweet words and sweet treats, and the following are ten pairs we thought you might like.
Billy Collins, Aimless Love: Oh Billy Collins. You are both beautiful and totally accessible, which makes you perfect for this list. And what poem could be better than the one tempting your lover to forego dessert in favor of other carnal pleasures in the Hotel d’Orsay across the street? Read “France” and take that Creme Brulee to go.
One Hundred and One Classic Love Poems: I imagine some poetry lovers might spurn the anthology, but I have a warm corner of my English major heart reserved for them. And many a love poem anthology has been published. They are like the cafeteria of poetry. A love poem anthology will introduce you to a number of poets, styles, and perspectives on the many, many faces of love. This is a slim volume from our collection; some poems you may remember from school while others will be less familiar. Read a few aloud over a slice of pie a-la-mode, cafeteria-style.
John Donne, Complete Prose and Selected Poetry. Ah, John Donne. We could not have written such a list without him appearing at least once. I’m not sure whether I think he’s brilliant, or absolutely full of it when it comes to love, but he knows how to wrap it in language, anyway. I could not decide between three classic love poems: Do we go with the celebration of carnal seduction in “Elegie XIX To his mistress, going to bed”? Or maybe the more serious “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, which criticizes “dull sublunary lovers love (whose soul is sense)”? I fear the cynic in me might win. At this point, “Love’s Diet” rings most true. Donne is all over the map in his love poetry, and that’s never boring. Eat dark chocolate truffles, and see if you can decipher Donne.
Ted Kooser, Valentines: A goodly time ago, inspired by the handmade valentines of a friend, Ted Kooser wrote a Valentine’s Day poem and sent it to 40 women. The former U.S. poet laureate started an annual tradition, with the mailing list reaching thousands of women. In 2007, Kooser published 22 of these poems in a slim volume of delights such as this excerpt from “A Map of the World”:
But feeling is indelible,
and longing infinite, a starburst compass
pointing in all the directions
two lovers might go
Fold a copy of one of these poems and tuck it into a box of tiny conversation hearts. Give them to a sweetheart.
W.B. Yeats, The Yeats Reader. You’ve probably all heard “When you are Old”, but I like “Parting” even better. A pair of lovers arguing over whether the day is breaking and therefore must part seems very Valentine-ish to me. On the other hand, a spurned lover warning his muse that she’ll someday regret following her own heart in rejecting his proposal? Well, that’s not so romantic, pretty as it is. Read “Parting” in bed with your sweetheart, and eat a store-bought cheesecake.
Pablo Neruda, Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Cancion Desperada: Neruda published this volume when he was only 19, and it’s full of exactly what you would think a brilliant, 19 year old poet would write about love. It’s heady, breathless, unapologetically lusty, and then it crashes, hard. Run by your favorite Utah-based soda shop for a dirty Dr. Pepper and a pink-frosted cookie before delivering this volume to your amor. 35 years later he wrote Cien Sonetos de Amor for his beloved wife Matilde. You should give those a look, too.
Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems: Have you ever heard that thing about whoever loves less has more power? The question is not a new one. Long ago Christina Rossetti was musing on the “weights and measures” of love in “I loved you first, but afterwards your love.” I like her conclusion–that “rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine.’” Go find a bakery that sells kouign amann. Read the poem, share the pastry.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese: Elizabeth Barrett was a poet of some acclaim when she received a letter from another writer, Robert Browning, praising her work. They met, fell in love, and she wrote a volume of exquisite love poems to her husband. She was reluctant to publish them, deeming them too personal to share, but he convinced her. And thank heavens he did. Sonnet 38 is a standout, although 33 and 43 are more famous. For me, a love that starts with a kiss on the hand is a love indeed to be proud of. Get out the strawberries and Nutella, and take turns kissing the sweet fingers of your beloved.
Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering. Admittedly, most cowboy poetry is about roping and wrangling and the rugged landscape of the West. But cowpokes are not without their softer, “sweetsome” side. There’s two volumes of this cowboy poetry anthology, with enough funny love poems like “Jack Potter’s Courtin’” and “The Two Things In Life I Love the Most” to keep you in stitches and in kisses. And if you’re really brave, see if what they say about Rocky Mountain oysters is true.
American’s Favorite Poems:The Favorite Poem Project Anthology. This one is not so much about love poems, although there are plenty of good ones here from Marvell, Yeats, Li Po, Bradstreet, Byron and others. This one is really about the love of poetry. Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky asked ordinary Americans to send him the poems they loved with commentary about the value these lines bring to their lives. The resulting anthology is wide-ranging and unique. I would read these aloud to friends or lovers in a warm home over a welcoming table and a pot of gooey, comforting homemade Mac and Cheese. Sounds like a lovely, wintry Valentines to me.