Finally, Valentine’s Day is almost here. No, I’m not awaiting a lovely romantic evening with someone special. I enjoy Valentine’s Day because, like any excuse to get romantic, it means people will start to pretend they care about something I actually enjoy; poetry. Specifically, we’re talking about love poems. Around Valentine’s Day, people start to look for ways to make grand romantic gestures. Books of love poems are great for that. They’re like a whole bunch of Hallmark cards stapled together, but with even more oomph. You could also just pick a poem from a collection of romantic poetry and memorize to recite to your beloved.
Here’s the thing though, bookstores usually have a relatively small selection of poetry, and as such they only ever seem to offer the same limited selection of romantic poetry collections, three of them by my count. I’ll give you a break down here of what those varieties are and which are good for what kind of romantic fool you claim to be.
First, there’s the Romance Poetry anthology. That’s specifically an anthology of poets from the Romance movement in 19th century Europe, not just a collection of poems that are considered “romantic.” Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” will be in there for sure, as well as a smattering of poems by Shelley, Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth. There may be a few others, but these are the names you will recognize, and the pillars of this poetic pantheon that are almost always included in any collection of that era. These are the poets you had to read in high school. So yes, there is the risk of inducing high school English terror flashbacks, but don’t count this type of collection completely out.
Romance poetry is perfect for the romantic who loves a refined, old fashioned air. These verses are usually as flowery and cherub-ridden as the art and architecture created around that time. If you secretly wish that those flouncy ascot scarf things were still in fashion and think maybe you could’ve put up with wearing a corset for the right flouncy dress, then this is the love potion for you. Also, for those who actually enjoyed high school English, these poems could be a pleasant reminder of better times, and their first foray into poetry.
Next, we have something more modern The love poems of Pablo Neruda are always a big hit. Neruda, born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, was a Chilean poet who could write quite passionately and beautifully about love. He wrote just as passionately about other things as well, and you will probably find larger collections of his work that include a wider variety of his poetic tastes, but publishers just love a good Neruda love poem collection. Any collection you find in English is a translation, as Neruda composed all his works in Spanish. In many cases, and this isn’t uncommon for poetry translations, the poem in its original Spanish is printed next to an English translation. I, like many others, have mixed feelings about translated poetry. Rhyme and meter are difficult to translate without altering the original poem’s exact phrasing, and poetry also relies heavily on a precise use of language.
Still, there are many well-translated collections of Neruda out there, as he is so popular. Or perhaps you are a part of the sizable population of Americans that can speak Spanish. That works great too. Neruda’s poems are for people who might find Romance era poetry to old and stuffy. His language is far more modern and dynamic, and his form is less rigid. He still shows great poetic skill, of course. His poetry is for the wilder, more passionate romantic.
Finally, we have a blast from waaay back in the past. This poet hails from much further back than the 19th century, but that, somewhat oddly, hasn’t hindered his recent growth in popularity in Western cultures. Rumi, also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī or Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, is a 13th century Sufi Muslim poet of the Persian Empire. Confused? Well, Rumi was always a highly respected master of philosophy, theology and poetry back in his homeland. Nations like Iran and other places that emerged from the Persian empire can point to the distinct influence Rumi had on their classical poetry and music. As far as I can tell, the relatively recent boom of Rumi’s popularity in the US probably came from that tendency of disillusioned Westerners to go off and seek wisdom from Eastern gurus and masters, for that extra spicy, exotic enlightenment they just can’t get from reading Shakespeare for the billionth time in a row.
I personally enjoy reading Rumi’s poems. They are two centuries older than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, those poems that you might remember from high school as being very hard to read and definitely not in any English language you recognized, so his poems do have to be a bit updated in their translation. Modern English translations have a smooth, readable pace to them. I’d say they’re for the philosophical, pondering sort of romantic. As with Neruda, you will find more general collections of poems, but his love poetry is very popular. His sentiments are generally quite timeless, and ironically he sounds a whole lot less stuffy than Romance poets that technically come much later than him.
There you have it, an in depth run down of what’s likely the bulk of your nearest bookstore’s romantic poetry selection. I generalize, of course, but I defy you to walk into a bookstore, find the usually well-hidden single shelf of poetry they have and tell me I’m wrong. Hopefully you’re now one step closer to making the perfect Valentines Day for your loved one.