Poems for Valentine’s Day

Image by Gaetano Cessati.

It’s become a yearly tradition now for me to post a list of favorite love poems around Valentine’s Day. Lucky for me that Valentine’s Day should fall on a Wednesday this year! Regardless of how you feel about the holiday in general, I hope that you won’t mind looking over some rather incredible poems on the subject of love.

1: “The Greatest Love” by Anna Swir, translated by Czesław Miłosz and Leonard Nathan

In my humble opinion, Anna Swir never got her due. Among her contemporaries in post-World War II Poland, her work was often regarded as distasteful for the frank way in which it deals with sexuality and the female body. These days, she tends to get overshadowed by her more famous countrymen, poets like Miłosz, Herbert, and Szymborska. Here’s hoping that one of these days, she is finally brought out of the shadows.

Like a lot of Swir’s poetry, this poem is very short, and like Swir’s other poems, its brevity is its strength. She understands that some experiences are too powerful and too far beyond human comprehension to do them justice in words and for this reason, she effaces herself as much as possible and tries to let the experience speak through her instead of her speaking for it.

2: “I Loved You Before I Was Born” by Li-Young Lee

Where Swir writes about a love that endures through long periods of time, Lee has in mind instead a love that transcends time—or at least seems to. The speaker readily admits that what he says “makes no sense, I know,” but that doesn’t keep him from feeling as though his love has always existed and will always exist into eternity.

3: “Love” by Ivan Lalic, translated by Francis R. Jones

As in Lee’s poem, the love in this poem is a thing unto itself, a force that is, in a sense, independent of the two people. Unlike in Lee’s poem, however, this speaker knows full well that his love will die with him or with his lover, and it’s that impending disaster—the catastrophe that will end their way of life—that gives the poem a sort of bitter-sweetness: they know it has to end, but the thought of it ending makes it all the more precious.

4: “Six Years Later” by Joseph Brodsky, translated by Richard Wilbur

For me, this poem pairs well with “Love.” To the couples in both poems, their love is all-encompassing and completely changes the way they live their lives. But where Lalic’s poem has a more ethereal feel to it, Brodsky’s brings the focus closer to the here and now, though the poem is no less beautiful for that. While it can seem a bit abstract a times, concrete details like snow, eyelashes, lips, even crumbling wallpaper help the reader to place this couple in time and space. It’s that middle ground that Brodsky finds between the abstract and the concrete that makes this poem work for me, a kind of compromise that all good poems strike. (I might also add that, although most foreign language poems can’t help but become free verse when they enter English, Wilbur has taken great care to translate this one into a regular meter and to preserve the rhyme scheme of the original poem. So, that’s good.)

5: “Your Telephone Call” by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Renata Gorczynski

Here’s another short and sweet one, also by a Polish author. I’ve written about Zagajewski before and the great subtlety of his work—like Swir before him, he knows how to do more with less.

6: “C Major” by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton

In addition to his career as a poet, Tranströmer also had a great passion for music, which can be plainly seen in much of his poetry. Here, the very air seems to play music around the lover in this poem, and the whole world is transfigured by his love.

7: “Motive” by Don Paterson

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Don Paterson is one of the greatest living poets in the world. And while his 2009 collection Rain overall left me feeling cold, there are more than a few gems in it, this being one.

Unlike the other poems on this list so far, this one isn’t so much about love itself as it is about a particular lover: her unknowability and unpredictability. It explores the reality that, no matter how close you are to a person, you never completely understand them. I suppose, in a way, you could say that this poem is about any meaningful relationship.

That’s all for now, but do let me know in the comments what some of your favorite love poems are and what you think of these!

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