Love can be one of the most difficult things to put into words. So let’s turn to the poets this Valentine’s Day. We asked some of our friends to pick out their favourite poems about love.
My beloved sister Ruth introduced me to the poetry of Mary Oliver – and this poem in particular became very meaningful to us both, when Ruth was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer at the age of 32. It expresses the link between love and loss – and, for me, the miraculous ways in which love cannot be extinguished by death, despite the dark river that separates the living and the dead. Ruth died almost 25 years ago, and my love for her remains as powerful as always – and whenever I read this wonderful poem, it feels as if our enduring love emerges from between the lines.
In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
I adore Philip Larkin and someone gave this poem to me just before my wedding – I’d never heard it before. Larkin isn’t known for his love poetry that’s for sure. But it speaks so perfectly of the breathtaking risk of falling in love. The feeling that you have to grasp the moment and plunge headfirst in – making a decision to believe that it is something that is worth jumping for.
Is it for now or for always? By Philip Larkin
Is it for now or for always,
The world hangs on a stalk?
Is it a trick or a trysting-place,
The woods we have found to walk?
Is it a mirage or miracle,
Your lips that lift at mine:
And the suns like a juggler’s juggling-balls,
Are they a sham or a sign?
Shine out, my sudden angel,
Break fear with breast and brow,
I take you now and for always,
For always is always now.
I used to roll this poem off from memory and think I probably still could now. As a student I sat with my best friend (we are friends still, all these years later) batting the verses backwards and forward to each other. I enjoy all of Betjeman – it isn’t high or elevated literature but a rhythmic record of social history and the metre of his poems lends them to being committed to memory easily.
The construction is quite old fashioned. A Subaltern’s Love Song conjures up images of the interwar period and reminds me of watching films such as In which we serve or Brief Encounter ( with Celia Johnson saying “I’ve got something in my eye” on a station platform and a handsome Dr (Trevor Howard) wiping it with a clean white handkerchief and their love affair starting on the back of that…)
It seems like a period of innocence now. This poem is a bit of an indulgence to remember and feels like a warm blanket wrapped around your shoulders.
A Subaltern’s Love Song By John Betjeman
Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!
Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.
Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.
Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.
The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.
On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.
The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.
By roads “not adopted”, by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.
Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!
Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.
And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.
I chose this poem as one of my wedding readings, because I think it captures both the enormity of love and its quieter moments. The joy of hearing a lover laugh in response to something you’ve said, a morning kiss, or watching sunlight glint on water. But also the depth and gratitude you feel when all the mornings and years stack up into a lifetime spent together. As this poem suggests, we don’t always remember to express that gratitude when we are busy living. That’s why this poem is so special to me: it reminds me to find a place to say ‘thank you’ for all the years, all the minutes, and all the glorious laughter.
I have just said By Mary Oliver
I have just said
Ridiculous to you
And in response,
Your glorious laughter.
These are the days
Is swimming back
To the east
And the light on the water
As never, it seems, before.
I can’t remember
I can’t remember
So many years!
Are the morning kisses
Or the evenings
Or the inbetweens?
All I know
Is that “thank you” should appear
So, just in case
I can’t find
The perfect place-
“Thank you, thank you.”
This was a very tough choice, but for Valentine’s Day it has to be Having a Coke with You. Only Frank O’hara could write a love poem about how having a coke with someone you love is better than all else! His clear, immediate voice and ability to the electrify the mundane is incredibly charming. I melt every time.
Having a Coke with You by Frank O’Hara
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles
and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
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 the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it
I don’t have a favourite love poem, but I do have a favourite poet – Mary Oliver. It seems to me that she loved life fiercely and observed it acutely, but never shied from the darkness of human experience, mining it diligently and returning to the surface with rare gems of pure love and joy which she sets into her poems. This one is a beauty.
Not Anyone Who Says by Mary Oliver
Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.