So. Let’s talk about love poems.
They’re hard! They’re HARD. Forget about how hard they are to write – it’s practically impossible just to PICK one.
Consider the idiosyncrasy of both love and poetry. One person’s deep sigh is another’s suppressed giggle. One person’s romance is another person’s nightmare.
On the one hand, there’s the risk of treacly, trite cheesiness. Even stellar poets can write cheesy love poems. I mean, no less than Rita Dove – RITA DOVE! – wrote a poem called “Heart to Heart” that ends:
I can’t wear it
on my sleeve,
or tell you from
the bottom of it
how I feel. Here,
it’s all yours, now—
but you’ll have
to take me,
(I can’t call her out like that without also mentioning that she’s got some fabulous love poems, too. Don’t be mad, Rita Dove, don’t be mad.).
But that’s arguably better than the flip side – the poem that’s 0% treacly but also misses the mark on “romantic.” There are so many deeply felt, stunningly beautiful poems that should never, ever be read in a tender whisper over wine. Here’s my policy: If a poem might inspire your listener to say, stricken, “I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to make you feel that way,” IXNAY on that oem-pay.
A lot of Neruda falls under this category. I know! The man’s a master. But in the course of one poem he can veer from hearts, freedom and heaven to … “you are sad, all at once, like a voyage. // You gather things to you like an old road.” Being compared to an old road can put a damper on an evening, just sayin’.
Then there are the classics. How do I love thee? Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? If ever two were one, then surely we … I could not possibly object to the virtues of these poems. They are shining examples of romantic verse. But they’re so famous that, alas, they’re a cliche.
Where does this leave us? Well, I have some utterly unsolicited advice.
1. Go straight for the sex poem. Obviously use this advice with discretion, friends, but the fact of the matter is that sexy poems are more reliable than lovey poems. Cheese-free and rarely cliched, they might raise an eyebrow but they’re less likely to inspire derision.
They can be on the clean side, like Carol Ann Duffy’s “You”:
I open the bedroom door. The curtains stir. There you are
on the bed, like a gift, like a touchable dream.
And, because nothing inspires great erotic poetry like unconsummated energy, there are tons of sex poems that are perfect for long-distance relationships, whether from Emily Dickinson:
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
or Muriel Rukeyser:
Lie there, in sweat and dream, I do, and “there”
Is here, my bed, on which I dream
You, lying there, on yours, locked, pouring love
2. Go for a slightly less overused classic. Try John Donne’s “Good-Morrow”:
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday”:
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.
Or Walt Whitman’s lovely “Live Oak With Moss”:
And that night O you happy waters, I heard you beating the shores—But my heart beat happier than you—for he I love is returned and sleeping by my side,
And that night in the stillness his face was inclined toward me while the moon’s clear beams shone,
And his arm lay lightly over my breast—And that night I was happy.
Beloved poems, great poets, but not quite as stereotypical as your Bradstreet, Barrett Browning or Shakespeare.
3. Go with a contemporary choice that’s self-aware but still sincere. Love poems these days tend to be less exuberant and hyperbolic than their 17th-century equivalents, filled with more mundanity, hesitancy and doubt. But some of them definitely still fit the bill for a romance-soaked holiday. Margaret Atwood does a lovely job of it, despairing at the inadequacy of all the words we wrap around romance:
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their deafness.
It’s not love we don’t wish
to fall into, but that fear.
this word is not enough but it will
have to do.
And then there’s my current favorite love poem, by Matthew Dickman. It’s both a parody of the “list-of-reasons-why-you’re-pretty” poem, and a delightful example of one. It’s erotic and silly in equal parts, as messy and awkward and extraordinary as real love, with a healthy dose of pure joy. “Getting It Right" features these fabulous lines: "Your ankles are two monster-truck engines / but smaller and lighter and sexier / than a saucer with warm milk licking the outside edge; / they make me want to sing, make me / want to take them home and feed them pasta” – and it ends like this:
… Your neck
is a skyscraper of erotic adult videos, a swan and a ballet
and a throaty elevator
made of light. Your neck
is a scrim of wet silk that guides the dead into the hours of Heaven.
It makes me want to die, your mouth, which is the mouth of everything
worth saying. It’s abalone and coral reef. Your mouth,
which opens like the legs of astronauts
who disconnect their safety lines and ride their stars into the billion and one
voting districts of the Milky Way.
Darling, you’re my President; I want to get this right!
P.S: And if you’re single, there’s Rumi. (There’s always Rumi).
Tonight I will make a tun of wine,
Set myself up with two bowls of it;
First I will divorce absolutely reason and religion.
Then take to wife the daughter of the wine.*
Happy Valentine’s Day!