"Page 112—It Reminded Me of You"
Slate writers and editors share their favorite Valentine's Day love poems.
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.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.