Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?

Chevy Chase LibraryStaff Picks

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?

Forget the Hallmark Card! Send some of these sweet words to your loved one instead this Valentine’s Day.

Ah, Valentine's Day. Love it or hate it, soon every store on your block is going to be covered in a regurgitation of red hearts, lace and little cupids. But if you really want to impress your lover or your crush this Valentine's Day, memorize one of these bad boys and find a balcony somewhere. It seemed to work for these prolific love poets (some of whom had lovers on every continent). 

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda
Scandalous when they were first published in the 1920's, Neruda’s love poems have become a staple in the Valentine’s Day displays of bookstores everywhere. But don’t let this proliferation fool you. This modern translation of Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desperada is an essential romantic work of art that continues to inspire the lovers and poets of today. There’s no denying that Neruda has a gift for conveying the fervent passion and desire of romantic love. His lyrical poetry flows through each page in a blaze of glory, juxtaposing the sublimity of nature with the sensuality of the human body. Neruda’s love feels orchestral, and his passion like divine worship. His imagery punches through so powerfully, you could almost take a bite out of it. So even if you have to buy off the display this February, take my word for it; Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair is one of the greatest collections of love poetry ever written.
The Sonnets by William Shakespeare
Why read Shakespeare? No one says ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ and ‘hence’ anymore!
Well, other than the fact that his plays have been reproduced countless times in popular culture (see The Lion King, She’s the Man and Warm Bodies among other popular movies), and the fact that his language (groundbreaking for its time) has inspired countless poets, artists, actors, and historians for hundreds of years, you should read the sonnets to impress your crush that’s why! Widely considered as some of the greatest love poems ever, the sonnets were written to commemorate the poet’s beloved for years to come. And so they have! What can be more romantic than rendering your lover effectively immortal through the beauty of the written word? As Shakespeare himself writes in Sonnet XV: "And all in war with Time for love of you."
But the sonnets aren’t merely a clichéd iteration of courtly love. Rather, they give a complex and intricate view of gender and sexuality by denying the reader a predictable heterosexual narrator or relationship. Pronouns change, sexuality seems fluid, and not one person or couple can be pinned down and traced throughout the collection. Shakespeare’s love poems encourage romance as complex and universal rather than conventional. He gives no sense of resolution in his works, other than to say that his words give life to love. Even way back in the 1600's, Shakespeare believed that Love is just Love, no matter what it looks like.  
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho translated by Anne Carson
Even in pieces, Sappho is a master of love poetry and Carson brings her work to life with her new translation based on Sappo et Alcaeus: Fragmenta by Eva-Maria Voigt (1971). Sappho has inspired a lot of controversy over the years for her sexual preferences, which are evident in most of her poetry. She addresses her lyrics of love and passion to women and in Poem 31 she even watches a straight woman from afar, lamenting her inability to act on her romantic feelings. Rather than compare her love to nature or the divine, as many traditional poets are want to do, Sappho’s expression of love seems more like a desperate observation; the pain of one who is forced to stifle her passions. At some points, the Poetess (as she was often called) even seems angry at the objects of her affection, her love so strained and painful that her lyrics appear violent and threatening. Sappho is the original lovesick poet, her works usually emphasizing her suffering in love rather than eroticism or passion realized. Her poetry stirs powerful emotions, and points to the complexity and often bittersweet nature of romantic love, however lasting and ancient it may be.
Felicity by Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver is most famous for her transcendent nature poetry that explores the relationship between humans and the divinity of the natural world. Her first collection of love poems, Felicity, came out when she was eighty years old, and her devotions are simple but moving and full of understanding. This is a fresh and inviting collection of love poems that feel almost like a prayer of gratitude addressed to the feeling of love itself. The speaker enjoys soft kisses and sweet moments with her beloved and she tries not to take their relationship too seriously. Where Neruda’s love poetry is filled with drama and intensity, Oliver’s is gentle and warm, leaving the reader sighing at every page, wishing they too could bask in the glow of the speaker's relationship. An elegant celebration of small moments of everyday romance, Felicity is a feel-good collection for a chill Valentine’s Day.
Bicycles: Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni
Named because “love requires trust and balance” just like riding a bike, Nikki Giovanni’s companion collection to her famous 1997 Love Poems, explores love as an antidote to life’s pain and celebrates romantic love in all its manifestations. Like all of Giovanni’s poems, these are heartfelt and real, a window into Giovanni’s own feelings and fantasies, and her journey as a person. Giovanni addresses love as an ambivalent force, speaking to it about her regrets, hopes, sadness and fears. But she also isn’t afraid to have fun with love in her exploration of such a complex and deep subject. “In order to properly care for things / they must be loved / And touched,” she says in one poem, and then asks coyly: “want to give it / a go?” These poems feel like childhood: short and sweet, and the are the prefect mirror to the “crazy clutter” of being in love.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
Not all love can be bicycle rides and puppies. Shire captures the pain and vulnerability that comes with falling in and out of love--the mistakes you make along the way, the people who hurt you, the risks you take and the marks they leave. Shire’s book is the most erotic and painful in this list, and it also addresses the strength of love felt between mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, and the complexity of the relationships between girlfriends, long-distance acquaintances and one-night stands. Ultimately, love is a journey of mistakes and it often takes a long time before you can write about a lover like Shakespeare did. Shire captures the struggle of this journey, and how difficult it can be to be open and vulnerable with someone, even when you desperately want to love them. "I did not beg him to stay because I was begging God that he would not leave,” reads the first poem of the collection, introducing a mosaic of anger, destruction, pain, loneliness, lust, tenderness and affection. In “Ugly,” Shire’s images feel lonely and violent: “what man wants to lie down / and watch the world burn / in his bedroom?” But in “The Kitchen,” her love is sweet and open: “coconut and ghee butter; / he kisses the back of your neck at the stove.” Love is a complicated mess of emotions, as is Shire’s poetry. And while it probably won’t be in any Valentine’s window displays, it’s worth the read.