1. Song of Songs, Canticle 4
Despite attempts to cast the Song of Songs as sacred texts referring to God’s love for humankind or for the Virgin Mary, they remain ravishing in their sensuality. The cataloguing of the body of the beloved, finding everything perfect—this excerpt captures that swoony experience.
2. “When You Are Old . . .” by William Butler Yeats
I confess I first encountered this poem in the movie Peggy Sue Got Married, in the scene where the young wannabe Byron quotes it to Kathleen Turner’s character and then spoils the mood by quoting some of his own execrable verse. It’s a somewhat melancholy poem in the end, with its “how love fled,” but what stays in memory is the lovely assertion of a profound love that sees beyond the body.
3. “As We Are So Wonderfully Done with Each Other” by Kenneth Patchen
A lyrically romantic evocation of postcoital bliss that reminds me of some of Pablo Neruda’s fantastic love poems to his wife, Matilde. Check out Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets if you want to really wow your lover.
4. “Chance Meeting” by Susan Browne
I like the way this poem embodies the eternal mystery of even those whom we’ve loved and lived with a long time, and how its rhythms float on all those commas, without the resting point of a period, in the long, suspended, erotically and emotionally charged moment of approach.
5. “Bar Napkin Sonnet #11” by Moira Egan
And on the other hand—for those alone on Valentine’s Day—I like the way this one delineates our search for love (in all the wrong places). If Edna St. Vincent Millay had been born half a century or so later, she might have penned something like this poem.
1. “July” by Kazim Ali
This poem is deceptively simple—about lying in a graveyard and chatting—yet there’s so much movement: from the living to the dead, from the earth to the sky, and then back again to a suggestive kiss that resonates in the affectionate tone of the poem. There’s also an interesting exchange of information between the speaker and his companion; two people are filling the space between them with philosophy until their meaningful chatter eventually reels their mouths together.
2. “Lisa” by David Hernandez
I absolutely love the way this speaker absorbs his sweetheart’s pain via a scar that comes with a story independent of the relationship. Now a couple, they become extensions of each other’s histories, their fears but also their fortunes braided together. This poem is a testament to the complex way people learn to accept happiness, bliss, and love—by imagining their world with the absence of these blessings.
3. “A un Desconocido” by Lorna Dee Cervantes
The speaker in this poem addresses a stranger, hence the title. There’s something seductive in the way she swirls her desire and fantasy around her tongue, how this unknown man sets her mind and body aflame, and how she can’t quite possess him or let him go either. Or is this a stranger at all? Is it, rather, the speaker’s exploration of a lover through a different sensibility? In any case, here Cervantes has crafted a gorgeous love poem so heavy with passion that it will wilt the flowers on the wallpaper.
4. “Aubade” by Amber Flora Thomas
An aubade is a type of love poetry that is an homage to the parting of lovers at dawn. There’s much to be said for one that owns up to the impulsive second round, as this poem does. These lovers do not part, not yet, and the scents of lust that will linger are as everyday as the dirty dishes and as representative of intimacy as the act of sex. I’m also tickled by the double entendre at the end of the poem: it’s always fun to end on a climactic moment.
5. “Sonnet XX” by Pablo Neruda
Of the 100 love sonnets in Pablo Neruda’s collection, this one appeals to me most. It loses something in the translation of mi fea—“my ugly one”—which is a Spanish term of endearment. This sonnet plays around with a seemingly binary opposite, ugly vs. pretty, and then gradually reveals that these are two sides of the same person. And both are valued equally.
I read Neruda in Spanish because I’m a native speaker, and as such I am highly critical of the translations out there. I translated this sonnet myself, though readers are encouraged to seek out Stephen Tapscott’s translations in the University of Texas Press edition of 100 Love Sonnets, published in 1986.
1. “Sunflower” by André Breton
Breton didn’t think much of this light bit of “automatic writing” until 11 years later, when, in the first flush of infatuation with Jacqueline Lamba, he realized that the poem had prophesied their midnight walk through Les Halles, that “farm . . . in the heart of Paris.” He recounts the story in L’Amour Fou and explains the “Sunflower” in it much as Dante explains his canzones and sonnets to Beatrice in La Vita Nuova.
Breton ends L’Amour Fou with a beatific letter to his only child, Aube: “My little child, just eight months old, always smiling, made at once like coral and like pearls, you will know then that any element of chance was strictly excluded from your coming, that your birth came about at the exact time that it was supposed to, neither sooner nor later, and that no shadow was awaiting you above your wicker cradle.” “Sunflower,” then, did not augur just any love affair, but one that would fulfill the great alchemical promise of love: a daughter.
2. “Formerly Communist Love Sonnet” by Connie Deanovich
Is it my imagination, or is that Sappho in back of this O’Haraesque valentine? (“Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers, others call a fleet the most beautiful of sights the dark earth offers. . . .”) As Sappho imagined Helen sailing on a ship to Troy, “led astray by desire,” so the heroine of this poem imagines cinematically seducing (seduction, sedition) her Chicago beau beside a Russian ship: both poems feature lovers against a backdrop of empire, reversing the values of epic and lyric, placing the focus back on the human heart even if, as Deanovich confesses, it is “cheap greasy hypnotism.” I love how the artifacts of time attain a sort of cartoon coloring (that factory-made red scarf) in a poem that eschews any attempt to be “timeless” (it admits history into its frame, after all) and thus retains the power to surprise—a talent no lover should be without.
3. “My Boyfriend” by Camille Guthrie
On the other hand, a poem like this shows that one can make lust for a man’s body epic too (“legs like longitude and latitude . . . hands like passports . . .”). Renaissance poetic forms called blazons catalogued female body parts, but they were short forms (like Shakespeare’s “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun. . . .”). Guthrie’s blazon is an incantatory spell: as she inventories her boyfriend’s parts she inventories the world, and in his valorization becomes herself a giantess!
4. “First Turn to Me . . .” by Bernadette Mayer
A poet, a devotee of Robert Duncan, impressed on me his “theory” that a great poem is one you would read to your lover in bed. “First Turn to Me . . .” may lack delicacy but not elegance, as these epigrammatic couplets are models of brevity: “you arrive at night inspired and drunk, / there is no reason for our clothes.” Needless to say, this is a perfectly accessible, clear, and simple poem that anyone can understand. Yet it doesn’t lack history: it was written in the wake of Mayer’s glorious translations from the Greek Anthology and Catullus—into Brooklynese.
5. “From the Dressing-Room” by Medbh McGuckian
O libidinous language, faithful in your faithlessness, maybe you are the subject underlying my favorite love poems? The speaker, a diva who remembers “Left to itself, they say, every foetus / would turn female . . .” calls nature, which introduces difference, “the enemy.” The dreaminess and evasiveness are worthy of Breton (would it be too outlandish to suggest a Celtic connection between the mysticism of McGuckian and that of Breton, who was born quite near Brittany?), as if this poem too were an act of clairvoyance, the language scrying itself—dressing rooms require mirrors, after all—for a glimpse of the Beloved. The principle of fecundity in love with itself: Poetry.
1. “sweet reader, flannelled and tulled” by Olena Kalytiak Davis
Isn’t every love poem a come-on as much to potential readers as to its addressee? Even as the love poem whispers its yearnings into its intended’s ear, it checks out of the corner of its eye to see if everyone else is taking note of what an enthralling seducer, what a consummate sweet-talker it is. You might even say that the beloved in a love poem is simply the means of soliciting a readership: it’s actually my love, the reader’s love, that the poet truly longs for. Davis’s beguiling poem acknowledges, plays with, and savors this dirty little secret. Try reading every instance of “reader” as “lover,” and note that the poem still works just fine. Then take any poem that addresses a “lover,” and substitute “reader.” I’m betting that works, too. It may even sound more true.
2. “The Good Morrow” by John Donne
Parsing the intricate and obsessive metaphors of Donne’s love poems can be frustrating—I like to imagine an exasperated girlfriend begging him to just shut up and kiss her—but the effort offers great rewards to the persistent reader. Among the many clever pleasures of this poem, my favorite is the one found in the last three lines. Donne alludes to Galen’s assumption that death was caused by imbalances in the body, and then argues that if he and his beloved can manage to love each other in perfectly equal measure, their love—and perhaps they themselves—will never die. Impeccable logic; deeply weird idea.
3. “Windchime” by Tony Hoagland
How can anyone write a heartfelt love poem in this age of irony without seeming like a sap? Here’s how. The first two lines of Hoagland’s last stanza establish his credentials as a skeptic, so we’re willing to stick with him as the poem becomes gradually more tender. Notice how the stanza’s vocabulary eases us toward sweetness by adding dashes of verbal acid for balance: “work boots,” “ice chest,” “problem,” and of course that final equivocal nail. Imagine how we’d snort with scorn if the poem lacked its last line.
4. “The house was just twinkling in the moonlight” by Gertrude Stein
Love affairs and poems both require patterns and variations: without patterns, they risk chaos and dissolution; without variations, boredom and stagnation. Nowhere is this more delightfully demonstrated than in the love notes Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas wrote to each other over the course of their long and happy union, a marriage that critic Elizabeth Meese has called “one of the twentieth century’s great love stories.” In a fascinating introduction to this collection of brief notes culled from the Stein archive at Yale, editor Kay Turner explains that Stein’s habit was to write until late at night, long after Toklas had gone to sleep, and leave a note for Toklas to find when she got up early to type the other pages Stein had written. The notes are not necessarily great works of art, but then that’s part of their charm: they were written not as public literature, but as private gestures. (Which is why the “reader”/”lover” switcheroo experiment I recommended above will not work here.) The special aura surrounding these notes comes from the amalgam of life and art they represent: the happy domestic rhythms reflected in the playful lingual rhythms, and vice versa. A lovely Valentine’s Day gift idea for your literary-minded sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea. Be prepared to learn some surprising things about cows.
5. “Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion” by Wallace Stevens
Stevens is too often thought of as a purely cerebral poet, the metaphysician of “The Snow Man” and “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.” But Stevens—especially the Stevens of Harmonium—can be sexy! In this poem, perhaps even downright raunchy! Sometimes a plantain is not just a plantain!
6. “The River at Wolf” by Jean Valentine
Looking over the poems I’ve chosen here, I notice how manic some of them seem in comparison to the calmness—at once exquisitely delicate and crushingly intense—of a line like Jean Valentine’s “Your finger drawing my mouth.” To put the distinction in scientific terms that Donne probably would have appreciated, most love poems are driven by kinetic energy; Valentine’s quiver with potential.
7. “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand” by Walt Whitman
I adore Whitman’s love poems from the “Calamus” section of Leaves of Grass. They’re full of frank, lusty attention to bodies, but also continual reminders that as fundamentally good and beautiful as love’s union may be, something is always held back, whether by design or fate, a part of us that will remain unknowable to our beloved no matter how willing we are to disclose ourselves. What else could the “one thing” without which “all will be useless” be? I’d love to know.
1. “Passing Through” by Stanley Kunitz
2. “Parkinson’s Disease” by Galway Kinnell
3. “The Good Morrow” by John Donne
4. “The Cloister” by William Matthews
5. “when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story” by Gwendolyn Brooks