14 Great Poets on Their Favorite Love Poems

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We imagine that many of you may be getting down to the wire on finding that perfect love poem to scribble inside your beau’s pink card (or croon drunkenly from a snowy patch below your girlfriend’s bedroom window, whatever floats your boat), with tomorrow being Valentine’s Day and all. To help out, and to celebrate the season of love, we’ve asked a few great poets to tell us their favorite love poem or the line of poetry they find most romantic — and why, so you can sound smart when you steal it. After the jump, read some fantastic poetry chosen by some fantastic poets, and you’ll be one step closer to a very successful holiday (and a more successful soul, probably).

Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Nikky Finney, author of Head Off & Split:

Favorite line: “The way you make love is the way God will be with you,” Rumi

“There are so many words by Rumi that melt me straightaway into the heart pine floor. This particular line of words is so powerful and free of prediction that first it freezes me, forcing my eyes closed, and then instantly it infuses me with a kind of sweet slow burn that reminds me that I am so alive and so willing to take another chance on another new day. If this line had been spoken at Emmanuel Methodist Church when I was a girl in South Carolina I would not have been bored and scribbling bad poetry in the margins of the church program. I would have been mindful, engrossed, bowed, a devoted girl shepherd — imagining the future.”

Alex Dimitrov, author of the forthcoming Begging For It: “Mystic,” by Sylvia Plath

The air is a mill of hooks — Questions without answer, Glittering and drunk as flies Whose kiss stings unbearably In the fetid wombs of black air under pines in summer.

(read the rest here)

“I was a senior in high school in Michigan. I had read Plath’s poem ‘Mystic’ for the first time and I wanted to talk to everyone about it — to tell them that this was a poem about love, and how there was no great love. It turned out no one wanted to talk to me about it so I left Michigan. I came to New York. Then, years later, I was on a plane to Chicago going to a writers conference. This was in 2009. I had broken up with my boyfriend of four years and I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I walked into a room full of poets talking about love. One of them said Keats had written the greatest lines about love and I said that was probably true. But there was a line from Plath’s ‘Mystic’ that came to me then, a line I think about often, a line I wish I had written. ‘Is there no great love, only tenderness?’ ‘Mystic’ is a love poem after all. When the romantic questions love it is only to reaffirm the reality that love is there, it’s real — and that’s reaffirmed through doubt. Of course Plath was a romantic. Anyone faithful to something that continuously rejects and tests them is — like poetry tests the poet. And so Plath ends the poem with the line, ‘The heart has not stopped.’ And it hasn’t. We are bound to what we love. And there’s nothing romantic about it.”

Paige Ackerson-Kiely, author of My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer: “[dogs and boys can treat you like trash. and dogs do love trash],” by D.A. Powell

dogs and boys can treat you like trash. and dogs do love trash to nuzzle their muzzles. they slather with tongues that smell like their nuts

but the boys are fickle when they lick you. they stick you with twigs and roll you over like roaches. then off with another: those sluts

with their asses so tight you couldn’t get them to budge for a turd so unlike the dogs: who will turn in a circle showing & showing their butts

(read the rest here)

“I cannot think of a more consolatory pallet than one adorned with the beasts. To be forced to lie among them is pure elevation. If we afforded solace half the esteem we award love this project of living would be easier to endure.”

Photo Credit: Trane Devore

D.A. Powell, author of Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys: “Looking at Each Other,” by Muriel Rukeyser

Yes, we were looking at each other Yes, we knew each other very well Yes, we had made love with each other many times Yes, we had heard music together Yes, we had gone to the sea together

(read the rest here)

“Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Looking at Each Other’ is built on a simple line that repeats its initial affirmation as a thrum. ‘Yes, we were looking at each other’ is the alpha and omega of the poem’s world. A perpetual past in which we have already made love and in which that love-making is recounted, step by step, until the pulse of the body grows short and rapid, arriving, coming. The details of the romance are both precise and mythic: ‘Yes, it threw waves across our lives.’ The speaker’s body is mirrored by the body of her lover: ‘our eyes saw each other’s eyes.’ Then mouth, breasts and ‘bodies entire.’ One senses the boundless knowledge these lovers have of one another — they have made love many times, they have gone to the sea together, they have fought violence and oppression together. And they are still able to arouse one another, to find in one another the beginnings of desire as if for the first time. In this poem, love is an abiding force. Passion builds and abates, but it does not leave. A sexy glimpse at love the second time (or even third time? fourth time?) around.”

Darcie Dennigan, author of Madame X : “Francesca Says More,” by Olena Kalytiak Davis

that maiden thump was book on floor, but does it really matter who kissed who first or then who decided to go further? lower? faster? naturally, we took turns on top. now here, now there, and up and down…once it started no one even thought to think to stop.

(read the rest here)

“It’s not so much romantic as sexy. But sexy in a deep, dirty, and geeky way. Also funny and desperate, as all sex acts are (to me at least). Also, it’s a contemporary sonnet that’s pretty strict and not a slumberfest. Sonnets were originally sexy, and somehow OKD is bringing sexy back, successfully. The formalist A.E. Stallings said somewhere that sonnets are cages, and I think this poem works because the speaker is a wild animal, chafing against the cage. There’s so much more to say, but I know you only have a few lines.”

Photo Credit: Jude Domski

Ada Limón, author of Sharks in the Rivers: “The Crossing,” by Dorianne Laux

The elk of Orick wait patiently to cross the road and my husband of six months, who thinks

he’s St. Francis, climbs out of the car to assist. Ghost of St. Francis, his t-shirt flapping, steps

(read the rest here)

“How difficult to pick a favorite love poem. I love so many love poems (contemporary and otherwise) that I could write a love poem to love poems. And I find them both excruciating and stimulating to write; it’s such a lesson in getting those personal idiosyncratic details just right. I suppose the only way to choose a favorite is to focus on the way I always turn to poetry, which is to pick the poem that punctures me in the right way, at the right time, and leaves me even more exposed to the world’s good. Laux’s poem does just that at this strange love-full, but limbo-y moment in my life. The slow, plodding lines that describe the obstinate elks, the simple off-hand description of her new husband’s T-shirt in the wind, the semi-trucks behind them, waiting, blaring their horns, life’s overwhelming rush pressing in on them, and all the while the speaker’s love is patient, and equally as iron-willed as the large beasts that block the road, a simple St. Francis. And in the end, the poem offers us that final satisfying moment of lucidity: despite the world’s mess, sometimes, having someone who is willing to roughly urge us toward safety is all we need to go on.”

Tyler Mills, author of the forthcoming Tongue Lyre : “After Paradise,” by Czeslaw Milosz

Don’t run anymore. Quiet. How softly it rains On the roofs of the city. How perfect All things are. Now, for the two of you Waking up in a royal bed by a garret window.

“These are the first four lines of ‘After Paradise,’ by Czeslaw Milosz. I fell in love with it when I first found Milosz’s Collected Poems at a used bookstore. I opened up right to it. ‘After Paradise’ is startling, arresting, and quieting. This is a love poem that faces stillness, and time. ‘Don’t run anymore. Quiet. How softly it rains / On the roofs of the city’ I can’t stop being startled by these lines. They are breathtakingly beautiful: there is something enchanting about the rain, and how the voice of the poem speaks directly to you, as a lover. Ultimately, this poem is a kind of prayer:

You must be attentive: the tilt of a head, A hand with a comb, two faces in a mirror Are only forever once, even if unremembered, So that you watch what is, though it fades away, And are grateful every moment for your being.

I will leave it to you to find yourself with ‘After Paradise,’ unexpectedly one afternoon…”

(Read the whole poem here.)

Photo Credit: Oliver Bendorf

Jacques J. Rancourt, Wallace Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University: “Song of the Open Road,” by Walt Whitman

“The direct address to his camerado (believed to be the name he assigns his male lover) in Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of the Open Road’ is a proposal for travel and escape, an exchange of an intolerant society for love’s wilderness and isolation. ‘Listen!’ he demands. ‘I will be honest with you, I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes.’ Just as we can never truly be sure of another’s intentions, this poem — which boasts his trademark declaratives — by its end is touched by vulnerability and uncertainty, closing with a series of unanswered (and unanswerable) questions:

Camerado, I give you my hand! I give you my love more precious than money, I give you myself before preaching or law; Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”

(Read the whole poem here.)

Angela Voras-Hills: “To You,” by Kenneth Koch

I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut That will solve a murder case unsolved for years Because the murderer left it in the snow beside a window Through which he saw her head, connecting with Her shoulders by a neck, and laid a red Roof in her heart.

(Read the rest here.)

“Reading Kenneth Koch’s ‘To You’ is a little like falling in love. The poem opens with a metaphor that keeps the reader guessing: how is ‘a sheriff searching for a walnut’ like love? But the metaphor isn’t resolved in the next line. Instead, it becomes more frustrated and illogical, abandoning all sense of space and time with its tense shifts and pronouns. Yet, even without understanding exactly what is happening or how, the language propels the reader through to the end. There is so little to make sense of in this poem, so much to get swept into, and then, finally, there’s the feeling of landing naked on the shore of some vaguely-remembered sea. Isn’t that what it’s like to fall in love?”

JD Scott, author of Night Errands and the forthcoming Funerals & Thrones, and editor of Moonshot : “Valentine,” by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion. It is a moon wrapped in brown paper. It promises light like the careful undressing of love.

(Read the rest here.)

“Carol Ann Duffy’s noted poem ‘Valentine’ is preaching the gospel of V-Day through ferocity. The opening image of the onion, that moon dressed in brown paper, is voluptuous and startling. Sharp to the senses. Whenever I read these words I feel the chemical irritants on my fingertips, lips, in my eyes. The potent onion is an unexpected image of love, and one I always think of this time of year. If someone left this poem pinned to an onion with a knife, how could you refuse their love?”

Nancy Reddy: “My Story in a Late Style of Fire,” by Larry Levis

Whenever I listen to Billie Holiday, I am reminded That I, too, was once banished from New York City. Not because of drugs or because I was interesting enough For any wan, overworked patrolman to worry about— His expression usually a great, gauzy spiderweb of bewilderment Over his face—I was banished from New York City by a woman.

(Read the rest here.)

“As far as why I’d love it, I’d say that it does so many of the things that make Levis great: it starts in an unexpected place (with Billie Holiday) and digresses — a house fire, an apricot chamise, divorce — finally circling back in a way that feels both organic and inevitable. It’s also just heartrending: ‘if I had sorrows/ I also had laughter, the affliction of angels and children. / Which can set a whole house on fire if you’d let it.’ I also have a personal connection to the poem, since it was my husband who introduced me to it when we first started dating. Who can resist a gruff, Marlboro-smoking former military man who also reads you poems in bed? I couldn’t, anyway.”

Niina Pollari, author of Fabulous Essential and organizer of the Popsickle poetry festival: “Seall,” by Brooklyn Copeland

Our pulses gulp in rhyme upon release—our

bodies beyond us siphon, harbor.

From Siphon, Harbor

“Brooklyn Copeland is a thrifty poet; her lines are spare, her phrasing economical. And yet in only thirteen words, she crafts an expansively intimate scene of two lovers: pulses in sync, they both call to each other and answer each other. Harbor as verb, signifying both to keep something in one’s heart, and to seek home or shelter in something. I open Copeland’s book when I want to find, in domesticity and devotion, a love poem.”

Rebecca Hazelton, author of Fair Copy and the forthcoming Vow : “Penelope’s Song,” by Louise Glück

Little soul, little perpetually undressed one, do now as I bid you, climb the shelf-like branches of the spruce tree; wait at the top, attentive, like a sentry or look-out. He will be home soon; it behooves you to be generous.

(Read the rest here.)

“One of my favorite love poems is Louise Glück’s ‘Penelope’s Song,’ the first poem in her 1996 collection, Meadowlands. It may seem strange that I would choose a poem from a collection that uses the myth of Penelope and Odysseus to examine a dissolving marriage, but I have never much cared for an unambivalent outlook. This poem, with its lovely invocation of the muse, ‘Little soul, little perpetually undressed one,/do now as I bid you’ initially seems to promise an uncomplicated story, the dutiful wife awaiting her husband’s return, ‘attentive, like/a sentry or look out.’ Yet we soon learn that the relationship is a fraught one: ‘You have not been completely/perfect either; with your troublesome body/you have done things you shouldn’t/discuss in poems.’ The solution? To call out and guide him home over the waters, with your ‘dark song,’ one that is ‘passionate,/like Maria Callas.’ Once home, the domestic rituals resume again, alluded to in the usual subtle snark of Gluck’s ‘wanting/his grilled chicken.’ The linebreak, of course, calls back to the ‘demonic appetite,’ and also deflates it. Despite the tensions, the past betrayals, the future disappointments suggested, the speaker bids her soul to ‘shake the boughs of the tree’ but to do so ‘carefully, carefully, lest/his beautiful face be marred/by too many falling needles.’ We end with a desire to preserve the beloved, his beauty, to harm only a little. This poem, with its complicated view of love and on marriage, does all the things I want a love poem to do – when I read it, I enter the world of the lovers, see them as complex and flawed, and remember what it is to love and to be loved despite faults.”

Gina Abelkop, author of Darling Beastlettes and founder of Birds of Lace press: “Untitled,” by Emily Dickinson

Sweet Sue, There is no first, or last in Forever – It is Centre, there, all the time – To believe – is enough, and the right of supposing – Take back that “Bee” and “Buttercup” – I have no Field for them, though for the Woman whom I prefer, Here is Festival – When my Hands are Cut, Her fingers will be found inside – Our beautiful Neigh- bor “moved” in May – It leaves an Unimportance. Take the Key to the Lily, now, and I will lock the Rose –

“I found this poem several years ago in Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart’s brilliant Open Me Carefully, a collection of Emily Dickinson’s letters to Susan Dickinson, her beloved and sister-in-law. I love this poem so much that every single time I see either a lily or a rose I think of it and feel it lean against my heart. Its sweet assertion that ‘There is/no first, or last/in Forever -/It is Centre, there,/all the time’ is a concept that plays on time and space and the entire universe and yet here it lives happily fleshed-out, four short lines. Emily knows how to suck all the breath out of you and stop your heart: ‘Here is Festival -.When my Hands/are Cut, Her/fingers will be/found inside -‘; she knows how to be slyly dirty too. This poem is so lush and heady, all the feelings of love a human could ever have bound within its lines, elegant without pretension and meticulously sculpted while maintaining heat and joy. Emily puzzles words together so perfectly you’d think they could hardly exist anywhere outside the poem. I should also say that this entire collection is filled with poems on the level of this one and you should read it sooner than later.”