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8 poems for Valentine's Day
Beginning a relationship? Married for decades? Newly single? There's a poem for everyone.
 
Need a poem? Take one from the master, Seamus Heaney.
Need a poem? Take one from the master, Seamus Heaney. (Geray Sweeney/Corbis)

One way or another, you've probably noticed that it's Valentine's Day. Maybe you received a bouquet of roses; maybe you spent the day grumbling about another Hallmark Holiday. No matter what your relationship status, Valentine's Day tends to be unavoidable.

Unfortunately, the love poetry that gets passed around on Valentine's Day is usually as predictable a box of chocolates. Shakespearean sonnets are suddenly ubiquitous, as is "roses are red, violets are blue." So I've selected these poems to offer some variety, and with the the hope that everyone who reads this will be able to relate to at least one of them. Of course, this list is in no way comprehensive — so please, feel free to suggest your own favorites in the comments.

Whatever your romantic status, have a happy Valentine's Day.

For a crush:

"Your Catfish Friend," by Richard Brautigan
Brautigan's light, whimsical poem uses a catfish — which seems, at first glance, to be the most unromantic of creatures — to deliver an unexpectedly heartwarming tribute to a person you admire from afar.

If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond

Read the rest of the poem.


For new love:

"Twice Shy," by Seamus Heaney
Heaney's "Twice Shy" is laced with delicate emotion, tracing the tentative steps of two prospective lovers sorting out the first stage of their budding romance.

Her scarf a la Bardot,
In suede flats for the walk,
She came with me one evening
For air and friendly talk.
We crossed the quiet river,
Took the embankment walk.

Traffic holding its breath,
Sky a tense diaphragm:
Dusk hung like a backcloth
That shook where a swan swam,
Tremulous as a hawk
Hanging deadly, calm.

Read the rest of the poem.


For happy love:

"Having a Coke With You," by Frank O'Hara
There are few poems that burst with as much joy as O'Hara's "Having a Coke With You," which manages to capture the raw thrill of wanting to do everything with a new love:

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

Read the rest of the poem.

For tender love:

"Bird-understander," by Craig Arnold
Part of love is recognizing the truly unique qualities of another person — and Arnold's "Bird-understander" offers a gentle, tender tribute to a lover who demonstrates a rare kind of compassion.

Of many reasons I love you here is one

the way you write me from the gate at the airport
so I can tell you everything will be alright

so you can tell me there is a bird
trapped in the terminal all the people
ignoring it because they do not know
what do with it except to leave it alone
until it scares itself to death

it makes you terribly terribly sad

Read the rest of the poem.

For passionate love:

"Perhaps not to be is to be without your being," by Pablo Neruda
Thanks to his 100 Love Sonnets, Neruda's name is virtually synonymous with romantic poetry. Your safest bet is to pick up a copy and choose a page at random — you really can't go wrong — but if you're looking for a sample, try this:

Perhaps not to be is to be without your being,
without your going, that cuts noon light
like a blue flower, without your passing
later through fog and stones,
without the torch you lift in your hand
that others may not see as golden,
that perhaps no one believed blossomed

Read the rest of the poem.

For sexual love:

"To His Coy Mistress," by Andrew Marvell
"To His Coy Mistress" was written in the mid-1600s, but don't let that fool you — there's absolutely nothing coy about this tribute to carnal love. Marvell's message to his chaste lover is a simple one: You'll be dead someday, so why deny yourself any pleasures now?

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find:
I by the tide Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow

Read the rest of the poem.


For unrequited love:

"When You Are Old," by William Butler Yeats
This poem is, admittedly, a little whiny — he's basically saying, "I love you better than all those other guys, and someday you're going to realize it." But the language is so wistful and gorgeous that any potential bitterness is drowned out by the message of lifelong love.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep

Read the rest of the poem.


For a breakup:

"A Locked House," by W.D. Snodgrass
Love poems are great — but if you happen to be heartbroken this Valentine's Day, Snograss is your man. Start with "A Locked House," which offers a sad, nostalgic tribute to a relationship that fell apart, and the wreckage it left behind.

As we drove back, crossing the hill,
The house still
Hidden in the trees, I always thought—
A fool’s fear—that it might have caught
Fire, someone could have broken in.
As if things must have been
Too good here. Still, we always found
It locked tight, safe and sound.

I mentioned that, once, as a joke;
No doubt we spoke
Of the absurdity
To fear some dour god’s jealousy
Of our good fortune. From the farm
Next door, our neighbors saw no harm
Came to the things we cared for here.
What did we have to fear?
 
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor and film and television critic for TheWeek.com. He has written about film and television at publications including The AtlanticPOLITICO Magazine, and Vulture.

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