Ah, love. It’s the inspiration for countless poems and those thoughtful, last-minute Valentine’s Day gifts. I say that as a poet and poetry reviewer who often is asked on Feb. 12 or 13 to recommend the perfect poem or collection for someone’s beloved.
Before I answer, I always inquire about the recipient’s tastes and preferences. If the response is “I’m not really sure,” I suggest the wide selection of classic and contemporary love poems found on the Academy of American Poets and Poetry Foundation websites. Both offer some of the best poems from the 20th and 21st centuries alongside the work of literary icons: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (William Shakespeare, 1564-1616) and “If ever two were one, then surely we” (Anne Bradstreet, 1612-72). This intermingling subtly illustrates that poetry conveys universal emotions and insights, presented through the lens of a particular time and culture. The challenge – and the fun – is to find poems that resonate for you.
“What about a book? I need something I can wrap.”
Anthologies are a great option, depending upon what your sweetie likes.
Love Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet Series, 1993) takes readers on a tour around the world, from ancient Chinese and Greek writings to works by Russian, Italian, British, and American poets in more recent eras. The range of styles and movements underscores how the genre constantly evolves as writers strive to capture the essence of human experience.
Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation (Harmony, 2003), edited by Roger Housden, is intended to challenge readers to live more purposefully and passionately. As a line from Mary Oliver in the introduction asks, “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
At this point in the conversation, I often hear, “OK, I’ll take a look, but will those books teach me how to read poetry?”
Not in a didactic way. Instead, they and other collections give readers the chance to spend time with good poems, getting to know them slowly. The process is a bit like dating: If you’re attentive and open-minded, you’ll eventually find the right one.
“What about something for my mom or my daughter?”
She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), edited by Caroline Kennedy, examines the challenges and joys women experience as they move through various phases and milestones. Kennedy begins each section with reflections on the importance of poetry in her own life. Even the title, a line from a Lord Byron poem, hints at the quiet strength and delight found in these pages.
My suggestions are just a starting point. Whether people prefer free verse or fixed forms with rhyme, they need to see – and feel – how poetry speaks in new ways to each generation, even on social media.
“What if I want a book by just one writer? Who’s really good?”
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who was awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize in literature, and the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi are wonderful additions to any bookshelf.
Neruda’s sensual love poems were an immediate success when they were published in Spanish in 1924. They remain popular with American readers in part because of their exquisite descriptions, as demonstrated in these lines from “The Queen,” reprinted in Love Poems (New Directions, 2008), in which the speaker says that while others may not see her crown, “when you appear / all the rivers sound / in my body, bells / shake the sky / and a hymn fills the world.”
The Love Poems of Rumi, translated by Nader Khalili (Wellfleet Press, 2015), brims with compassion and a deep awareness of the divine. In “All the Precious Words,” Rumi notes that all the words “you and I have exchanged / have found their way / into the heart of the universe / one day they’ll pour on us / like whispering rain.”
Understanding poetic schools of thought is far less important than experiencing how the combination of concise language, vibrant imagery, and artful music can make you feel more alive and present.
Whether you choose a classic or a work by someone more current – activist and educator Nikki Giovanni, Instagram poet Rupi Kaur, or Don Paterson, author of “40 Sonnets” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) – make sure you read the work aloud slowly, and together. That’s when poetry will speak the loudest and most directly.