Feb. 14 is supposed to be a day of love, but for many of us, it’s a festival of small anxieties. Where to find the perfect gift, the perfect meal, the perfect words with which to re-enflame your wintering passion? In the matter of the long-stem roses and the oyster platter, good luck. When it comes to finding the right words, though, Slate has you covered. Elsewhere in the magazine this week, Robert Pinsky looks closely at two opposing love poets, Philip Sidney and Ernest Dowson. Below, Slate staffers add to his comparison with their own favorite Valentine’s Day poems. There is verse for every mood here: hot love, cool love, fresh love, lost love, ironic love, familiar love, and even tired love. Share these poems with a special someone—or add to our list in the comments below.
Michael Agger, senior editor
My favorite love poem involves the city of Pittsburgh, cats, and commuting to the airport. It’s called “Three Rivers,” and it’s by Alpay Ulku. I can’t remember where I first stumbled on it, and I don’t really know who the poet is, but his first line stopped me: “What are you doing now, Anne-Marie, on the night we would bring home good things to cook and watch movies from the 1940’s, the work week finally at an end.” What follows are snapshots of the small, shared familiars that twine two people together: lighting the stove for someone who is scared to do so, or a coat that matches the color of someone’s hair. The “you” of the poem is in a long-distance relationship. He’s longing for the way that he can feel only with this one person. The last line is direct: “I’m driving home from the airport without you. I feel sad in my stomach.”
John Dickerson, chief political correspondent
”Sorting It Out,” by Philip Booth, is not a conventional love poem. It is about a widower destroying a shirt his wife used to mend. Don’t include with your Whitman’s Sampler.
I was first captured by the scissors—the “bright claw” cutting the shirt and dividing the poem. The widower sits at his wife’s sewing table, but the scissors are from the desk: the wrong person, with the wrong tool, not fixing but destroying.
In marriage, love spreads. You remember the details of the Minneapolis trip. She knows where you store the candlesticks. It’s not about gender roles; it’s about load-sharing. These details signify a bigger entwinement—shared risks, failures, and dreams.
The widower has lost his wife, lost the moment when it was worth mending a shirt for the days that still stretched ahead of them. He has lost his way. As the poem ends, he chases the shirt’s scattered buttons on the floor, not sure what he’ll do when he puts a finger on them. His wife knew where the buttons were kept.
It is a devastating moment that also inspires. I want to ask my wife where the button box is just so I can hear the answer.
Jessica Grose, managing editor of DoubleX
My best friend from college read “Everything Good Between Men and Women,” by C.D. Wright, at my wedding. I adore the way it illustrates the gorgeous messiness of a long romance. You will see each other through everything—the joyful mud, the upsetting fever blisters. Wright’s plainspoken tone perfectly captures the intimacy of a marriage without even a whiff of saccharine. I hadn’t looked at this poem since June, and rereading it in February makes it feel, for a moment, like summer again.
Nathan Heller, copy editor
”Meditation at Lagunitas” is Robert Hass’ most famous poem and, for those of us who find Hass’ sensibility strangely similar to our own, a sort of anthem. It isn’t a love poem, really, or even a poem about love. But it captures the erotic textures of thought and visceral life so vividly it raises my pulse every time I read it. The poem begins with an abstract problem. Soon, though, that abstraction melts into specific, human stakes: the braid of sex and shared particulars that shape a romance, and the narrator’s own, deeply personal shards of memory and desire. By the time the poem reaches its arrival point in three wonderstruck beats—”what/ she dreamed”—this blend of thought and sensual memory, of language and what it conjures, has come down to the meeting of two bodies and lives. Tom Stoppard once described carnal knowledge as knowledge “not of the flesh but through the flesh.” Hass’ poem reminds us just how much there is to know.
Ann Hulbert, books editor
Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 130, which famously demolishes romantic comparisons of many kinds (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;/ Coral is far more red than her lips red,” etc.), has been misread by some as misogynist. Actually, it’s a rare love poem that is feminist—and funny! It’s the valentine for the mistress who rolls her eyes at valentines, who needs no flattery and appreciates satire. And just when you think the speaker has gone a little over the top—her breath, he says, “reeks”—he follows up with two closing tributes that manage the feat of simultaneously disenchanting and exalting his beloved. “I love to hear her speak yet well I know/ That music hath a far more pleasing sound./ I grant I never saw a goddess go;/ My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.” Doesn’t that sound like companionate love beyond compare?
Rachael Larimore, managing editor
In seventh grade, I was pimply and gawky and had a mouth full of braces. I was boy-crazy but had never had a boyfriend. I was only just learning to defy authority, by which I mean figuring out how to be obnoxious toward my parents. Which made it a perfect time to discover e.e. cummings. His defiance of the rules of grammar seemed subversive, and my parents were so happy that I was reading poetry that they didn’t notice I was giggling over the not-exactly-subtle romantic references. But years later, I still come back to “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond.” Cummings compares his love interest to a fragile, delicate flower but also succumbs to this love completely; and in doing so, he gives his subject resilience and strength. It makes for a complex emotional reaction for the reader and is a beautiful way to illustrate a simple truism: Love is a mystery.
Lowen Liu, copy editor
If there’s a Theory of Everything for love, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” by Wallace Stevens, might be as good as it gets; it’s a balm for jaded, too-smart-for-their-own-good lovers who know that a description of love’s power can sound an awful lot like a description of imagination. Stevens, with oblique elegance, avoids the word love as well as the word I, complicating this soliloquy: “It is in this thought that we collect ourselves,/ Out of all indifferences, into one thing.” Recite this on those nights when love feels like a greedy illusion that lives only because we allow ourselves to believe. If we believe together, isn’t that a beautiful thing? Isn’t it enough? Modern love indeed.
Chad Lorenz, home-page editor
In February 2000, I was riffling through anthologies looking for a love poem—the perfect love poem. My college sweetheart and I had spent exactly a year separated by 1,200 miles while I started my career in Washington, D.C., and she finished school in Nebraska. Reciting a poem in person, I thought, would be the best gift for our coming Valentine’s Day reunion.
At first glance, “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron (1788-1824) seemed suitable: short enough to memorize, beautiful imagery, a kicky rhyme scheme, and sweet assonance. But it was only when I rehearsed that I realized how aptly it described Liza. The poem praises beauty, but a mysterious kind—one that is especially striking in nighttime. While it portrays girlish innocence, it hints at a concealed dark side, an impish knowingness, a delicious duality. The poem also conjured the naughty excitement of our romance, much of it set during late nights. In that context, I discovered a tinge of sexuality to Byron’s stanzas.
Fast-forward to Feb. 14, 2006: After dinner, we are on a couch recalling Valentine’s Days past, and she mentions the poem. Having rememorized it, I recite it again while tears well up in her eyes. I realize this is my moment: As I arrive at the last verse, I reach into my pocket and descend onto one knee …
Noreen Malone, contributor
Perhaps, like me, you’re not much one for Valentine’s Day and find the languorous, long weekend of President’s Day to be the superior celebration of the month. If so, allow me to suggest my favorite patriotic poem, Sharon Olds’ “Topography.” On both holidays, and all the days between and after, may your cities be twinned and your states united.
Timothy Noah, senior writer
The word love doesn’t appear until the end of “The Continuous Life,” by Mark Strand, and it’s larger than love for one person, or even one family. It’s love as conscious gratitude for being born. My late wife, who was born the same day I was, found and cherished this poem during her long illness. Strand’s voice here sounds to me eerily like hers in its skillful braiding of domesticity (shovels, rakes, brooms, mops), transcendence (“The careless breathing of earth”), and fatalism (“you live between two great darks”). But maybe Strand’s genius is to inspire in every person who reads “The Continuous Life” a similar jolt of familiarity. This is mine.
Meghan O’Rourke, culture critic
For me, some of the most powerful love poems in English are the laments Thomas Hardy wrote in remembrance of his wife Emma, with whom he had a strained relationship. But because February marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth Bishop, I want to single out “The Shampoo.” Deemed by New Yorker editors too “personal” to be published (the rejection read “the deciding factor was that this sort of small personal poem perhaps doesn’t quite fit into The New Yorker“), it’s a love poem about washing another woman’s hair. Bishop deploys a categorizing register at the start (the lichen, the concentric circles) that gives way by the poem’s end to a direct address—at once direct and imploring—and a use of the first person all the more powerful for having been staved off. I’m always amazed by how quickly the distanced moon of the first stanza becomes the intimate, personal one of the third.
Troy Patterson, television critic
City Lights publishes Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, in its Pocket Poets Series, so the book is slim and square, 38 leaves, sized like a sly present. You hide it inside of her patent-leather clutch or slip it in the back of his best jeans, and your new friend discovers it with a soft smirk. The lines boogie and woogie, urbane and off-hand, “impulsive and appetitive,” to use a phrase of Helen Vendler’s. Inscribe it with a foxy phrase from a ballpoint Bic, and it will not let you down. But this is tangential. “Having a Coke With You,” O’Hara’s loveliest love lyric, is not in that book. You save that one for later. You wait until things get serious and commit its pops of ardor to memory and breathe it direct: “I look/ at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world/ except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick/ which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time.” Then the two of you take the train uptown and everywhere.
Robert Pinsky, poetry editor
Ben Jonson (1572-1637) is a great master: Nobody ever has been better at fitting the vowels and consonants of English into sentences with the counterpoint of lines and rhymes. In “His Excuse for Loving,” he sings the praises of a lady, and of poetry, in a sweet demonstration of what poetry is. You have to read it aloud—read it aloud without pausing unnaturally for the rhymes at the ends of the lines and you will hear great music.
When I first, long ago, read the line “Though I now write fifty years,” I thought Jonson was exaggerating to claim that he had been writing and loving that long. Now, I am beginning to understand.
David Plotz, editor
My sister-in-law Lisa read Billy Collins’ “The Lanyard” to my mother for her birthday a few weeks ago, and it has stuck with me. It’s a hilarious and beautiful poem about maternal love and the inadequate ways children reciprocate it (such as: braiding a red and white lanyard at camp, and giving it to her as a present).
Nina Shen Rastogi, Brow Beat blogger
My grandfather was a friend of my grandmother’s older brother; they worked together in the Chinese government’s information office in Hankou. When they first met, my grandmother says, he treated her like a kid sister. Then one day, on a sightseeing trip to Wuhan, he suddenly asked her if she knew any Shakespeare—and she responded by reciting this verse from The Tempest. After that, she likes to say, she could tell he saw her differently. Several days later, he gave her his first gift: A complete set of Shakespeare’s plays. They were married for 60 years, until he died in 2007.
This piece isn’t a traditional love poem, but it’s gorgeous to speak aloud. (Just try it.) And it’s always seemed incredibly romantic to me. After all, what is love but the “sea-change” that slowly turns the lover into something “rich and strange”—and that keeps the beloved from fading away?
A few years ago, I asked her if she still could still recite the poem. She could.
Dana Stevens, movie critic
The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) spent his life writing mostly unpublished poems under a multitude of personas he called “heteronyms”—not simple noms de plume but elaborate alternate identities, each with his own distinct biography, style, and voice. This poem by the heteronym Álvaro de Campos, a Whitmanesque modernist, is the closest thing to a love poem that the urbanely ironic Pessoa ever wrote. I love how the tone modulates over the course of the poem from chilly disdain (“all love letters are ridiculous”) to aching nostalgia (“if only I could go back to when I wrote love letters”) and settles at the end on a tender forbearance toward the ridiculousness of both language and love. The last stanza depends on an untranslatable play on words (read the original here)—a reason to learn Portuguese before next Valentine’s Day.
John Swansburg, culture editor
”Autonomy” is a funny title for a love poem: Isn’t love about losing your autonomy? I think A.R. Ammons (1926-2001) would agree that it is. What his poem acknowledges, though, is that this loss of autonomy is at once thrilling and terrifying. “I can’t live without you” is the stuff of power-pop bromides, but it’s also something you actually feel when you’re in love, and it’s damn scary. (It can also make you a little clingy.) “Autonomy” is about learning to tame this terror, because, as Ammons puts it to his lover, “how can I live/ worthy of you, in the/ freedom of your limber engagements,/ in the casual uptakes of your/ sweetest compliances/ if stricken in your presence/ by what your absence stills?”
Ellen Tarlin, copy chief
I’m friends with the poet Denver Butson and his wife. I first saw this untitled 14-word sonnet handwritten on a paper wedged into the mirror frame in their bedroom many years ago:
I never forgot it. It so perfectly captures the two sides of the coin that is deep, long-term intimacy—murderous frustration and claustrophobia on one side; mellow, quotidian contentment on the other—and how quickly the coin can flip and flip again. I think it would be the perfect sentiment for a wedding-gift card.
Tom Vanderbilt, contributor
Philip Larkin the man, a terminal misanthrope with more baggage than Heathrow’s Terminal 5, needs little elucidation, and it’s safe to say that he is to the love poem what Joy Division is to the love song: spare, unflinchingly honest, and British—a coruscation of cold remove. So why do I choose Larkin’s poem “Talking in Bed” for Valentine’s Day? (Honey, it’s not autobiographical, I promise.) Maybe it’s just wanting to add some salt to the whole saccharine affair. Maybe love is best felt when one has stared into the void of its opposite, in real life or in the words of Larkin. Or maybe it’s just the words. The poem stayed with me from the first for its jarring pairings (“the wind’s incomplete unrest”), its brutal emotional geography (“At this unique distance from isolation”), and the lethal turn of the close ("not untrue and not unkind”).
Elizabeth Weingarten, editorial assistant
I was 16 years old and certain that I was in love. I wasn’t. But I read In Her Shoes, by Jennifer Weiner. The book was bland and tedious, except for a section where Weiner reprinted e.e. cummings’ “i carry your heart with me.” I read the poem at least 10 times. I dissected each comforting, lowercase line and linked the messages to my own love life. Secretly, I had begun to worry about how I would possibly live without my high-school boyfriend when we went to separate colleges. Cummings perfectly articulated my angst! I returned Weiner’s book to the library and sped to Borders to purchase a cummings anthology. I now carry his raw, intimate words with me wherever I go.
Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of The Slate Group
I winced slightly when a character in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral recited one of my favorite poems, W.H. Auden’s “The More Loving One,” making it a little too famous for its own good. Auden wrote it in 1957, when he was feeling jealous toward his long-time lover Chester Kallman, who kept being unfaithful to him. In four short stanzas, Auden turns around the problem of feeling greater passion for someone than someone feels for you: “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well/ That, for all they care, I can go to hell.” The most memorable couplet distills the desired philosophical attitude for those disappointed in relationships of all kinds: “If equal affection cannot be,/ Let the more loving one be me.” That’s an outlook worth aspiring to, in romance and out, even when it’s not quite possible.
Chris Wilson, associate editor
The Polish Nobelist Wisława Szymborska operates in a world of irony, skepticism and chance, so it naturally follows that she’s at her best when writing about love—in particular, that rare subspecies known as “true love.” True love, she writes in a poem of that title, “couldn’t populate the planet in a million years/ it comes along so rarely.” Those lucky few it besets are “drawn randomly from millions but convinced/ it had to happen this way.” Szymborska sneers at their happiness in the face of the overwhelming evidence that their love has no meaning in a meaningless universe. So it is a particularly bitter moment when, in the last three lines, she turns the screw on us unbelievers. The joke, as it happens, is on us.
Emily Yoffe, contributor
The best love poems are bittersweet—many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are about knowing that love will be undone by time. I dare anyone not to tear up on reading Richard Wilbur’s exquisite tribute to his late wife, “The House,” a poem about losing one’s love, and the continuation of love after death.