Valentine's Day Help

We asked some of our favorite poetry professors -- many of them poets themselves -- for verses of love academics might want to recite for their Valentines. We hope some of their ideas may inspire.

February 14, 2005

We asked some of our favorite poetry professors -- many of them poets themselves -- for verses of love academics might want to recite for their Valentines. We hope some of their ideas may inspire.

Shakespeare was a favorite of many, of course. Lucinda Roy, a poet who is chair of the English department at Virginia Tech, picks the sonnet "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" for "its wonderful irony and sense of fun, and because it celebrates unconventional beauty -- a beauty which for many would be deemed ugliness." 

Unconventional beauty also appeals to Marvin Bell, Iowa's first poet laureate and a professor at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop. He had the guts to nominate one of his own poems: "To Dorothy," which begins, "You are not beautiful, exactly./You are beautiful, inexactly."

Bell also nominates poems he didn't write, including "To His Coy Mistress," by Andrew Marvell, a work that Bell calls "the great seduction poem that says, 'C'mon, let's do it.' "

Annie Finch, a poet who is director of the low-residency M.F.A. program at the University of Southern Maine, turned to ancient mythology, and recommends "The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi" as "the perfect poem for a woman to use to woo an academic male out of his head and back into his body."

Finch explains, "I have looked throughout the poetic canon for beautiful, sensuous heterosexual love poetry that includes the female perspective, and this does the trick.  This amorous dialogue between the goddess and her consort is magnificently written and delightfully graphic."

Jennifer Arin, a poet who is a lecturer at San Francisco State University, has poems to suggest for many different types of academics. Here are but a few of her ideas:

  • If your beloved is a male Americanist: Anne Bradstreet's "To My Dear and Loving Husband," of which Arin says that the poet's teasing of other women almost rises to "male fantasies of female mud-wrestling."
  • If your beloved is an impoverished grad student or an underpaid lecturer: Yehuda Amichai's "Open Closed Open," in which Arin says "lovers receive a blessing over their simple and sensual state of togetherness."
  • If you want to send a Valentine to a dean, provost or president: Carl Sandburg's "Happiness," which Arin acknowledges isn't strictly speaking a love poem. But she thinks administrators (and faculty members up for tenure, too) may benefit from the knowledge that true happiness may be found with one's family, "under the trees ... with a keg of beer and an accordion."

One of our poetry experts is a provost, Janet McNew of Illinois Wesleyan University. Her choice is the anonymous English poem, "Western wind, when will thou blow." In the poem, "the longing for wind, rain, seasonal change and renewal all finally resolve into this simple wish for intimacy and home," McNew says. The poem ends with an important message, she says: "Whether the darned wind blows or not, get home and make love to your partner!"

Jon Volkmer, director of creative writing at Ursinus College, says that while A.E. Housman is known "for athletes dying young and things in bloom," Lyric XV from "A Shropshire Lad" is "the best poetical pick-up line ever." Volkmer says the first octet comes down to this: "If you could see you as I see you, you would love you too, and be doomed."

Volkmer adds that "as A.E.'s biography would suggest, this one packs and equal punch in hetero or same-sex scenarios."

Some other scholars' suggestions:

  • "Saint Francis and the Sow," by Galway Kinnell. The poem "is a beautiful tribute and reminder of the beauty within us all, although we may need help from others to remind us," says Ann Tippett, assistant professor of English at Monroe Community College, in Rochester, N.Y.
  • "Sonnets from the Portuguese, 43," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot, and "One Art," by Elizabeth Bishop. "This mini-thology of love poems bespeaks the multifaceted nature of thick, ropey love," says James Reiss, poet in residence at Miami University, in Ohio.
  • Emily Dickinson's poems 907 or 1383. Lee Schlesinger of SUNY-Purchase says "Dickinson knew more about love than the rest of us put together."
  • "So What If I Am in Love," by Molly Peacock. "The poem revels as much in the pleasure of language as in the pleasure of being in love," says Adrienne Su, poet in residence at Dickinson College. Su adds that she posted the poem in various places on campus last year, to celebrate National Poetry Month, and it kept disappearing. "I like thinking about all the dorm rooms and offices where its admirers taped it up."
  • "Sweet Pea," by Ron Padgett. Bruce Covey, a poet who is a lecturer in English at Emory University, calls the poem "a stunning catalogue of flowers, compared, one by one, to the narrator's lover."


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