Laura Dzubay: Poetry Playlist on Love in the Time of February
I’m sorry to add to the deluge of Valentine’s Day-branded stuff being thrown around this week, but let’s face it: This is a literature column. I write poetry playlists. Love is one of the top forces out there that makes people really turn out for poetry, so I kind of had to.
Also, I love love and I love poetry, so I extra had to.
I tried to pick poems that explore love in a variety of ways, and I also tried to steer clear of some of the ultra-classics (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” etc.). The result is a selection of poems you could theoretically read aloud to your beloved, or slip into a box of chocolates, or secretly leave in somebody’s mailbox, or frost onto a cake. Or if those don’t sound like fun adventures, you could also just copy-and-paste them into an email. It’s up to you!
This winter break, I read a bilingual edition of The Captain’s Verses, or Los versos del capitán, a collection of love poems that Pablo Neruda wrote while he was in exile. I had never had a favorite poet before this, but I do now. The poems in that book were the kind of beautiful that makes you want to hold the book delicately, and turn the pages quietly, and reread them over and over again in both languages. “La rama robada” was my favorite one.
“Flirtation,” by Rita Dove
This poem is a perfect snapshot of what it’s like to start feeling like you like somebody — like a soaring in your heart right before you get to the top of a rollercoaster. Dove’s imagery (“Outside the sun / has rolled up her rugs / and night strewn salt / across the sky”) is gentle-handed and finely rendered. By the time she reaches the absolutely perfect ending comparison of the moment to a topiary (“so the pleasure’s in / walking through”), you don’t even need to fall in love with anything other than the poem itself.
“I loved you first: but afterwards your love,” by Christina Rossetti
I don’t think Christina Rossetti gets enough love. “I loved you first: but afterwards your love” is a brilliant example of her intimate control over language — showcasing the economy of her words, her impeccable meter and the intricate ways in which she’s able to pack complex emotions into condensed, beautiful phrases.
“Poem for My Love,” by June Jordan
“Poem for My Love” is short, genuine and tender. Jordan focuses on the feeling of wondering how you’ve come to be somewhere, with someone, and how something that feels so possible has come to be that way. In doing so, she manages to capture a sense of amazement that love can announce itself so simply.
“Love,” by Tina Chang
With a subject like love, it was hard not to include at least a little conflict on this list. Chang’s “Love” might be one poem listed here that you may not want to ice onto a cake after all, as I’d previously suggested. But even though it has a somewhat darker tone, it also explores some of the important complications of love, not to mention it contains some grand images and a true undercurrent, I think, of hope.
“The More Loving One,” by W. H. Auden
I’m closing off this list with one of the poems that I quote most often, both to my friends and to myself. The previous poems on this list have all been about love from the inside of a relationship, in some capacity, but “The More Loving One” is more about liking somebody from a distance. I know some people who aren’t looking forward to Valentine’s Day because they’re single, or they don’t think anyone else really likes them, etc., which is an understandable thing to be down about. I personally have unreciprocated crushes on people all of the time, and I know it can be kind of disappointing and frustrating and downright confusing.
But I also know “The More Loving One,” which includes at one point the following couplet: “If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.” I think about these lines all the time. This is why I think that even if you feel like people don’t appreciate you back this Valentine’s Day, loving other people or even just liking other people all by yourself is actually awesome. Always, every time, I would rather be the more loving one. Because how could anything add more love to one’s heart, even unreciprocated love, and not be something beautiful and good?