Top 10 love poems
Love makes poets out of all of us. The few who feel intimidated or embarrassed about writing out our love and longing often take recourse to sending lyric-heavy songs, or selections from a poem (like those included here), just to let the object of our affection know how they make us feel. As someone who is constantly moved by love and reckless enough to publicly write about it, I’ve also often relied on sending other people’s poems to reveal my own feelings.
An added benefit to only dating people on the broad left is that you soon realise that the poets who have authored the most revolutionary lines have also penned the most romantic verses. I think this is because in so many ways love is the entry-point to the vision for a just society – if we have to imagine a better world, we must begin from love.
Related: The best recent poetry – review roundup
This informed my readings, and rereadings of the Tirukkuṟaḷ, the 2,000-year-old collection of verses that remains a central part of Tamil literature and thought. It is a didactic text in its first two books (Morality, Materialism) – but the society it envisioned would hold itself together only by radical, life-affirming love, rapturously celebrated in the third book.
My new translation of the Kāmattu-p-pāl of the Tirukkuṟaḷ, The Book of Desire, reflects this. And like all love poetry, the translation started in a moment of being deeply in love, and lacking the solid support of a shared mother-tongue.
1. The Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath
I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
I’m putting this at the top of the list because it is my favourite poem by my favourite poet. Which of us has ever loved without suffering a heartbreak, which of us has loved without realising that our love was a story concocted in our mind? This poem has seen me through many an emotional crash-landing, so here I’m sharing the wisdom.
2. Heart Condition by Jericho Brown
What are you when you leave your man
Wanting? What am I now that I think so fondly
Of airplanes? What’s my name, whose is it, while we
Make love. My lover leaves me with words I wish
To write. Flies from one side of a nation to the outside
Of our world.
This mesmerising poem blends the world of the romantic and the radical together in the most endearing manner. Brown writes about love and desire with such insight – and what I especially admire about this particular poem is the way in which it combines the inner world of the lovers with the external strife-ridden world that discriminates against Black people, against queer people.
Either way, we’ll have to learn
to bear the weight of the eventuality
that we will lose each other to something.
So why not begin now, while your head
rests like a perfect moon in my lap,
and the dogs on the beach are howling?
What is a love poem that is not about loss, I often think. This one by Tishani Doshi holds me in its thrall. Watch how with every word she slowly, silently smuggles in the terror of a possible separation? Sometimes, our only strength is our vulnerability – and this poem sings with this realisation.
4. While the Child Sleeps, Sonya Undresses by Ilya Kaminsky
is sacred to us.
Washing each other’s shoulders.
You can fuck
anyone – but with whom can you sit
The extreme commodification of love into an industry under late capitalism – cards, date nights, flowers, wine, the seduction routine – means that we have come to think of love as a spectacle, as curated moments that are perfectly choreographed in order to be properly cherished. Sometimes, I’ve felt this visceral need to push back against these expressions of love, and simply to soak in the mundane. Hearing your lover count, watching them silently fold their clothes at the end of a day, that sort of thing. When I read this poem by Ilya Kaminsky, I read this (among a dozen other readings) as a celebration of the routine, the rut that lovers fall into, a world into which access is special.
5. The Guest by Anna Akhmatova
“Tell me how men kiss you,
Tell me how you kiss men.”
[…] Oh, I know: his delight
Is the tense and passionate knowledge
That he needs nothing,
That I can refuse him nothing.
The stranger in Anna Akhmatova’s poem is unnerving: he is not into the conventional happily-ever, he wants to follow her to hell. And what adds so much sexual tension to their encounter is the knowledge and acknowledgment of other lovers, and the guest’s studied indifference which is seductive on its own. Love for me is not merely a heteronormative man-woman couple caught up only in their universe, but something that opens up to the existence of complexities.
Say my name. Say it.
The way it’s supposed to be said.
I want to know that I knew you
even before I knew you.
I love this poem by Sandra Cisneros because of the way it invokes the intimacy of a shared language. It begins, “Make love to me in Spanish. / Not with that other tongue.” The more English becomes the language into which I default with my lovers, the more I find myself yearning for love that feels close to the skin, for a love that does not require translation.
7. The Looking Glass by Kamala Das
Oh yes, getting
A man to love is easy, but living
Without him afterwards may have to be
Kamala Das writes about love like no other poet, and I had a difficult time picking up the one I liked best. I am going to leave you with the brooding heartbreak built into these exquisite lines.
8. Poem 157 of the Kuruntogai by Allur Nanmullaiyar
The rooster crowed coo-coo.
My dearest heart skipped beats.
Dawn descended, a flashy sword,
Tearing apart lovers locked in embrace.
My translation of the ancient Sangam Tamil poem. This one is for all of us whose love cannot survive into the day, whose love does not meet the approval of the world.
9. You Who Never Arrived by Rainer Maria Rilke
You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house –, and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me.
Streets that I chanced upon,–
you had just walked down them and vanished.
Which of us has not fallen head over heels in love with an absolute stranger all too quickly, and watched them move out of our life with the same randomness and speed? Rilke’s poem underscores how being elusive makes that lover perfect, and how the lover’s perfection makes them difficult to find (again) and keep (for ever).
10. Love After Love by Derek Walcott
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Love is often framed as something that exists outside oneself, as a quest, as a search, as a vector that moves away from the self. There’s no questioning the fact that love is hard work as much as it is passion, attraction and whatever insanity that possesses us at the moment. Self-love is often foundational to loving others, and this is often forgotten. I love this poem because it tells us to move inwards, and “love again the stranger who was your self”.
• The Book of Desire by Meena Kandasamy is published by Galley Beggar Press. To help the Guardian and Observer, buy your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.