10 Love Poems Beyond Roses Are Red
This column originally started with the origin of the "Roses are red" poem. But frankly, it's boring. That thing can be traced back to 1594, which is a ridiculously long time ago. The first flush toilet was invented around the same time, and its inventor wrote a long treatise about it which was, of course, a thinly-veiled political attack of some kind. Because EVERYTHING was a thinly-veiled attack on a politician back then.
And that's the long explanation of why this column doesn't start with the history of "Roses are red." Because the history of the toilet is more interesting.
The history of poetry is great. But that history is also a problem because, from time to time, something like "Roses are red" comes to stand for what poetry is in popular consciousness.
This Valentine's, I want to share with you some different love poems, and some poems that talk about different kinds of love.
And please note, for the most part, these are not classics, and I've skipped over the classic authors. Add your favorites to the comments. Join the party.
1. Denver Butson's "My Brother"
The Body (what the poem's about)
Butson writes a touching, surprising poem about his brother.
The Brains (why this poem is more interesting than "Roses are red")
The desperation of this poem is right there on the page. Butson tries so hard to express everything that's important about his brother, and you can feel the way that each line leads to another line, each detail bringing up another to the point that what's important and what isn't is impossible to distinguish.
The Heart (the emotion of this poem missed by "Roses are red")
This is a poem of intimacy. Where some love poems are not very specific and say a lot about the poem's author, this one is all about the subject. The poem becomes more and more intimate as it goes down the page, and when it unravels, the reader is left riven.
It’s not easy to say how you love your brothers. Especially when they’re gone. Butson perfectly shows how hard it is to sum up a human life, especially when that life belonged to someone as big as a brother.
To escape headaches and fears of an unfaithful wife
my brother perpetually reforming drug user
machinist scrapper arrested at 14 for arson
and incarcerated for a few weeks
father of one son and one aborted fetus
occasional bowler heavy metal fan
connoisseur of ketchup potato chips stromboli
and cheesesteak wearer of faded jeans
faded flannel shirts pocket-tee shirts
unlaced hightops or workboots
concert tee shirts painters' hats and
army coat sufferer of aloneness
of paranoia and fear insomniac and talker
of another language in his sleep
expert belcher and marksman constant but lousy liar
moderate drinker of cheap beer violent rampager
demolisher of lamps electric fans telephones
blue-eyed ladies' man father brother and son
shy blushing ladies' man skinny-legged blue-eyed
ladies' man stuck the open end of a .357 Magnum
in his right nostril with the other end
in his calloused and stained hands
and blew his headaches and his head
from this world into the next
one night just like that.
2. Laura Gilpin's "The Two-Headed Calf"
The title says it all. Not a metaphor. An actual freak of nature.
Finding true beauty in something that is not beautiful, something presented as realistic and kind of awful, is where the magic of this poem happens.
Never have I felt like such a soft man as I have when re-reading this poem. It's got a lot. The shortness of life, the difficulty, and the way empathy can show us a sky full of stars.
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual.
3. & 4. Donald Hall's "Summer Kitchen" paired with Jane Kenyon's "Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks"
Hall's poem is about the extraordinariness of an ordinary evening. Kenyon's, lines about being painfully, endlessly woven into everything.
What you should know about these poems is that Hall and Kenyon were married. Both were sick during parts of their marriage, and Leukemia ended Kenyon's life prematurely in 1995. Knowing that brings a new depth to both poets' work and the way their work can be read in tandem.
Hall's poem is a perfect fit for remembering the goodness of the everyday. Full disclosure, this is a poem I read as a toast at a friend's wedding, and it killed. Keep it in your back pocket. Kenyon's poem, from the first line, also roots itself in the beauty of the everyday, but it captures a bitterness too. "Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks" has always felt, to me, like biting into something sweet when you have a cavity. It's delicious, and it's so painful.
In June's high light she stood at the sink
With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink,
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.
I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.
"It's ready now. Come on," she said.
"You light the candle."
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.
I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .
I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper....
When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me. . . .
I am food on the prisoner's plate. . . .
I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .
I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden. . . .
I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge. . . .
I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .
the longest hair, white
before the rest. . . .
I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow. . . .
I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .
I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name. . . .
5. Lisa Zimmerman's "Dog From the Original Fire"
It's about a dog, but it's also about a primal, somehow time-traveling love.
It's also easy to write a cheesy poem about one's love for a dog. This poem does the difficult work of showcasing love, but a different kind of love. A love that manifests from hard work and vigilance and springs from an unknowable source.
There's just something about this poem, in what it knows and doesn't know, that expresses the way a dog's companionship and love can feel so pure and so savage.
I have a German Shepherd
the sheriff’s department would love
for his giant chest, his hundred and twenty
pound frame, his desire for honest work.
He helps me feed the horses
rummaging for mice behind the grain bin.
When the mares get pushy, his bark
booms across the frozen lake
and foxes slink away in their thin red sleep.
The growl from his throat
is prehistoric, a rumble from a black cave
where firelight breaks the rock in tattered shadows.
He knows there is danger in the world, and fear
is neither influence nor abstract.
When the doorbell sings its one chime
he looms quiet on the other side.
Being ready is a solemn job. He could do it forever.
In the cave of his ribs his heart is an ember.
6. Lucille Clifton's "Poem In Praise Of Menstruation"
Menstruation. And more importantly, loving yourself. Not in that cheesy way people talk about to sell you gym memberships, but for real.
Clifton isn't one to shy away from things, and this poem proves it. This is a poem that's about menstruation, but it's not trying to shock anyone with detail or catch you by the skin with barbed words. It works towards making menstruation beautiful, and it does so with gorgeous tones and sentiments while staying away from things that are too flowery. It's a fine line, and Clifton nails it.
A great piece of writing can make a person feel differently about something, even for just a while. I can't say I have strong feelings about menstruation, or that it's a day-to-day, on-my-mind kind of thing. But this poem did change how I felt about it, just a smidge.
if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta if there
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain if there is
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel if there is in
the universe such a river if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
pray that it flows also
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave
7. Rita Dove's "Heart To Heart"
"Here's the difference between those cartoon hearts with "Luv U" written on them and the actual organ inside my body."
The poem takes away fluffy language and ideas about what a "heart" can do, and it almost feels like Dove is writing herself into a corner. When she springs out of the corner, you can't help but be awed.
The feeling the reader is left with is one of total honesty. When all the stuff from the Target holiday aisle is stripped away, what's left?
It's neither red
It doesn't melt
or turn over,
break or harden,
so it can't feel
It doesn't have
a tip to spin on,
it isn't even
just a thick clutch
I feel it inside
its cage sounding
a dull tattoo:
I want, I want—
but I can't open it:
there's no key.
I can't wear it
on my sleeve,
or tell you from
the bottom of it
how I feel. Here,
it's all yours, now—
but you'll have
to take me,
8. Richard Siken's "Boot Theory"
That dumb "Take my wife...please!" joke is turned on its head.
The way this poem twists a dad joke is so perfect.
When you write, there are things that you imitate and things that you enjoy, and then there are those pieces that make you say, "Damn. I wish I'd written that." "Boot Theory" is that kind of work.
Richard Siken has a way of building these little worlds where everything makes sense, and then he pulls the rug out and you're left confused and hurt. This poem hits that hurt, confused feeling like a freight train.
A man walks into a bar and says:
Take my wife–please.
So you do.
You take her out into the rain and you fall in love with her
and she leaves you and you’re desolate.
You’re on your back in your undershirt, a broken man
on an ugly bedspread, staring at the water stains
on the ceiling.
And you can hear the man in the apartment above you
taking off his shoes.
You hear the first boot hit the floor and you’re looking up,
because you thought it would follow, you thought there would be
some logic, perhaps, something to pull it all together
but here we are in the weeds again,
here we are
in the bowels of the thing: your world doesn’t make sense.
And then the second boot falls.
And then a third, a fourth, a fifth.
A man walks into a bar and says:
Take my wife–please.
But you take him instead.
You take him home, and you make him a cheese sandwich,
and you try to get his shoes off, but he kicks you
and he keeps kicking you.
You swallow a bottle of sleeping pills but they don’t work.
Boots continue to fall to the floor
in the apartment above you.
You go to work the next day pretending nothing happened.
Your co-workers ask
if everything’s okay and you tell them
you’re just tired.
And you’re trying to smile. And they’re trying to smile.
A man walks into a bar, you this time, and says:
Make it a double.
A man walks into a bar, you this time, and says:
Walk a mile in my shoes.
A man walks into a convenience store, still you, saying:
I only wanted something simple, something generic…
But the clerk tells you to buy something or get out.
A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river
but then he’s still left
with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away
but then he’s still left with his hands.
9. Louise Erdrich's "Windigo"
This poem comes with its own preface. I just get to kick back on this one:
The Windigo is a flesh-eating, wintry demon with a man buried deep inside of it. In some Chippewa stories, a young girl vanquishes this monster by forcing boiling lard down its throat, thereby releasing the human at the core of ice.
I love the lore-steeped feeling of this poem. Taking an emotion like love and mixing it in with a cryptozoological, legendary creature is up my alley in so many ways.
There's something wild and dangerous in those woods. The love of this poem feels dangerous. Feels scary.
You knew I was coming for you, little one,
when the kettle jumped into the fire.
Towels flapped on the hooks,
and the dog crept off, groaning,
to the deepest part of the woods.
In the hackles of dry brush a thin laughter started up.
Mother scolded the food warm and smooth in the pot
and called you to eat.
But I spoke in the cold trees:
New one, I have come for you, child hide and lie still.
The sumac pushed sour red cones through the air.
Copper burned in the raw wood.
You saw me drag toward you.
Oh touch me, I murmured, and licked the soles of your feet.
You dug your hands into my pale, melting fur.
I stole you off, a huge thing in my bristling armor.
Steam rolled from my wintry arms, each leaf shivered
from the bushes we passed
until they stood, naked, spread like the cleaned spines of fish.
Then your warm hands hummed over and shoveled themselves full
of the ice and the snow. I would darken and spill
all night running, until at last morning broke the cold earth
and I carried you home,
a river shaking in the sun.
10. Mark Doty's "At the Gym"
Observational poem about the gym, one of the grossest, grunty-est places on the planet. One of the foot-smelling-est...okay, I'll stop.
The struggle between power and beauty is an interesting one, and where the line comes in, when power becomes ugly, is an even trickier question. The poem gets at why we struggle for beauty.
It's hard to see someone wanting, and this poem manages to display a collective want, which is even harder to look at. The vulnerability level is so high by the end.
This salt-stain spot
marks the place where men
lay down their heads,
back to the bench,
and hoist nothing
that need be lifted
but some burden they’ve chosen
this time: more reps,
more weight, the upward shove
of it leaving, collectively,
this sign of where we’ve been:
flashed onto the vinyl
where we push something
gaining some power
at least over flesh,
which goads with desire,
and terrifies with frailty.
Who could say who’s
added his heat to the nimbus
of our intent, here where
we make ourselves:
lifted, pressed or curled,
Power over beauty,
power over power!
Though there’s something more
tender, beneath our vanity,
our will to become objects
of desire: we sweat the mark
of our presence onto the cloth.
Here is some halo
the living made together.
Hope you enjoyed these love poems. If you've got some you love, if there are some crucial omissions here, link them or post them below.
We will also accept your best versions of "Roses are red" in the comments, just for funsies.
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