From the very beginnings of human culture, poets have provided the words people use to express love both sacred and sexual. Here are anthologies and single poet collections of love poetry, classic and contemporary, from ancient and modern cultures all over the world, recommended by your guide. Choose one as a gift for the person you love, or better yet, explore the world of love by reading the poems to each other.
(ed. Barbara A. Mowat & Paul Werstine, Washington Square Press, 2004) The density, innovation and age of Shakespeare’s language requires concentration and study from its readers, but its complex beauty and his unfailing insight into the varieties and vagaries of human nature repay the reader’s work most bountifully. These sonnets are simply the best love poems ever written in English, and this edition from the Folger Shakespeare Library provides facing-page annotations to help you appreciate them.
(ed. Mary D. Esselman and Elizabeth Ash Vélez, Grand Central Publishing, 2005) The editors of this delightful down-to-earth collection have gathered poems from all over—Shakespeare to Akhamatova, Rumi to e.e. cummings, Philip Larkin to Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath to Wallace Stevens, James Wright to Jane Hirshfield—grouping them into sections titled with the various aspects and stages of love relationships—Ecstasy, Stability, Monotony, Uncertainty, Misery and Clarity.
(ed. William S. Peterson & Julia Markus, Harper Perennial, 1998) These are the poems E.B. Browning wrote to her husband during their courtship (he called her “my little Portugese”), and they have long been the best-known love poems written in English, including that most famous line, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” In this edition, the 44 sonnets are enhanced and “illuminated” by excerpts from the love letters exchanged by the Brownings and commentary by biographer Julia Markus.
(ed. Jill Hollis, Carroll & Graf, 2nd edition 2005) Women’s work is too often overlooked by the anthology-makers. This collection counters that tendency by gathering women’s voices from the 15th century to the present: Queen Elizabeth I, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield, Stevie Smith, Amy Lowell, George Eliot, Margaret Atwood, Louise Gluck, Dorianne Laux and others you’ve never heard of.
(bilingual ed., English trans. Stephen Tapscott, University of Texas Press, 1986) “Joyfully, playfully erotic...” “passionate and imaginative...” these poems written for Neruda’s third wife, Matilde Urrutia, are among his most appealing works, justly counted as classics. And don’t forget Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (trans. W.S. Merwin, Viking Penguin reprint, 1993), the book that sparked his international fame as a poet and remains an enduring favorite, full of spectacular romanticism.
(High Risk Books, 1994) June Jordan was all about passion, and this selection reveals the extraordinary range of her passion in sensuality, lyricism, obsession, anger, the full gamut... It begins with a series of poems written to her female lover, Haruko, followed by love poems selected from 20 years’ work by Adrienne Rich. It’s a deeply moving book; as Publisher’s Weekly said, “...so effective that readers find themselves mouthing the words. It’s impossible to sit silently back.”
(Selected and edited by Peter Washington and Sheila Kohler, Everyman’s Library, 1993) A wide-ranging gathering of poems on love in all its aspects: “Definitions and Persuasions,” “Love and Poetry,” “Praising the Loved One,” “Pleasures and Pains,” “Fidelity and Inconstancy,” “Absence, Estrangement and Parting,” “Love Past.” Catullus and Sappho, Li Po, Marlowe and Marvell, Dickinson and Yeats, Akhmatova and Neruda, Shakespeare, Dorothy Parker... this anthology has all the classics and some surprises.