BY MEIMEI XU
What more is there to say about love: conditionally unconditional, fleeting forever, temporarily eternal? How many other ways can we croon—don’t make me say it—“I love you?” After all, the blushing days of courting are over, chivalry is dead, and “Not all / of this of consequence / or will seem useful / in this modern age,” as contributor Richie Hofmann writes in his poem, “Courtly Love.”
But as exemplified by this list, romantic poetry and billets-doux still captivate us. We haven’t yet out-evolved romance and feeling and wanting to feel. Beneath our postmodern blue-light brilliance, we are still deathly afraid of being alone. So we write love poems for our flings, for our betrothed, for our mothers, for our scarecrows, for our friends.
Love hurts. We know our readers have had their share of romantic mishaps and lost longings, but as Henry David Thoreau once wrote in Walden, “There is no remedy for love but to love more.” So we’re sending you a homemade remedy for a broken heart, a list of our favorite poems for both teens and adults, from us here at Adroit to you. Whether you’re a lover of language or looking for the rosiest words to send to a secretly admired—or even if you’ve sworn off the neurochemical con-job altogether, here are eighteen short love poems to say the words and, perhaps, to make you fall in love with verse all over again.
1. Tooth by Lucian Mattison
We’re starting our list at the beginnings of the earth. In his poem, “Tooth,” Lucian Mattison explores the timelessness of love using the speaker’s environment: a creek filled with reminders of modern life—“taillights, halves of soda cans, /weathered glass”—as well as fossils with “a primal texture like nothing / I’d ever touched before.” With both the initial hesitancy and the childlike wonder of love’s first discoveries, two explorers momentarily leave adult life to unearth something new, tender, and as old as time itself.
Take your beloved digging for shark teeth—it might just work.
2. How We Make Love by Cheryl Julia Lee
Once we’ve discovered it, first love can be awkward, “like preschool attempts at origami,” as Cheryl Julia Lee writes in “How We Make Love.” Throughout this piece, Lee draws out this metaphor from love’s fresh, first folds, to the inevitable heartbreak, and to the hardening of the heart as one realizes that “paper / folded along the wrong / lines too many times tears easily and neatly.” Like Mattison’s “Tooth,” this piece expertly folds the rough edges of time into a physical object, a dry reminder of our previous passions.
3. Courtly Love by Richie Hofmann (second on the page)
We travel back in time for this poem by Richie Hofmann, back to when courting was a game and poetry was a hand of cards. Nostalgic on the surface, the piece also brings to light the work of wooing and writing and waiting: “…it was exhausting to expend oneself so freely.” What came after, too, was a self-denying process, as suitors had to juggle with “how both to fuck and to maintain / the semblance / of one’s virginity and one’s good moral / standing.” With our evolving societal norms surrounding love and sex, the question arises: is love perhaps more genuine, more open in this modern era?
4. Chevrolet by Nathan Durham
Nathan Durham’s account of a connection between two boys in “Chevrolet” brings us from the old to the young. The strength of this short piece lies not in grand romantic gestures, but what’s in between Durham’s shifting lines: “I don’t say anything, but you know, / and I know.” And through Durham’s efficient yet beautiful diction, the reader knows, too, how tightly bound the boys are to an intolerant, religious past, the tautness of the air even as they are alone, but also how, together, they can somehow breathe again.
5. Garden of the Gods by Ama Codjoe
Ama Codjoe’s poem, “Garden of the Gods,” speaks to the wealth of African-American art and literature and its paramount role in the reclamation of identity. These works, like the ones of sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, appear to Codjoe “more real than local news, / a depiction (spoiler alert) of the fictions / of race and their real consequences.” Through a beautifully interwoven narrative of personal experience and solidarity, Codjoe demonstrates the grounding power of individual stories and relationships in a near-dystopian world.
6. At Pegasus by Terrance Hayes
At first, “At Pegasus” by Terrance Hayes seems to speak from the perspective of an outsider looking in, a straight man at a gay bar. But the memory of a boyhood friend leads the speaker to find in these dancing men a common love, whether platonic or romantic. The musicality of lines such as, “He wouldn't know me now / at the edge of these lovers’ gyre, / glitter & steam, fire” exemplifies the other purpose of poetry: to lend beauty to those kinds of love rarely acknowledged as beautiful.
7. I Don’t Go To Gay Bars Anymore by Jacques J. Rancourt
Though gay bars have historically provided spaces for the LGBTQ+ community, “I Don’t Go To Gay Bars Anymore” brings attention to those who would prefer not just a bar, but a more open, accepting world. And while Jacques J. Rancourt paints a kind of utopia in his poem, the uncertainty conveyed by the tone and lack of punctuation reminds the reader that this place is not yet realized. Even promised lands don’t last: “somewhere a western wall / still holds our prayers in its teeth / I want to be seen I want to live / like in Jerusalem right before or right after / it was sieged.” Right now, it seems we’ve found a “holy city… so close / you could almost swallow it.” Almost.
8. What's Bottled Breaks by Tanya Grae
In lines that break and swell like the Florida tide, Tanya Grae brings us a piece to make us fall in love again. “What’s Bottled Breaks” explores the disorienting prospect of rekindled hope in a landscape we thought we knew: “maybe the state is / broken, / or my own is, or yours— /birds losing direction & sense, unbecoming / themselves in pulled feathers & song.” And who knows? Maybe this poem will reel your bruised heart in “after decades at sea.”
9. Symmetry by Kristin Chang (third poem on the page)
Dizzying and relentless, Kristin Chang’s “Symmetry” juxtaposes intimacy with another woman and isolation from the world, the beauty of the body and the violent persecution of it: “My mother says / women who sleep with women / are redundant: the body symmetrical / to its crime.” Surprising in its use of form and word play, “Symmetry” ropes a myriad of moving parts—the female body, shorelines, arrows, and silence—and docks them all at bay.
10. Forbidden Fruit by Heather Cox
Heather Cox’s sun-glazed “Forbidden Fruit” speaks of an overripe love. Like “I Don’t Go To Gay Bars Anymore,” “What’s Bottled Breaks,” and “Symmetry,” this piece blurs the outer world with the individual body: “her hands were in between everything. Her lips, / red ripe like cherries eager to plummet.” And like the other poems discussing same-gender attraction, “Forbidden Fruit” speaks to the queer body’s self-awareness of how it interacts with and is perceived by the world.
11. Love Poem For Scarecrow by Kathleen Radigan
“Love Poem For Scarecrow” by Kathleen Radigan takes us from summer fruit to autumn fields. Addressed to a scarecrow, the poem’s singsong quality and rhyme feel like a gentle caress and a warm hand to hold. And though the recipient in this case is inanimate, “Love Poem For Scarecrow” testifies to the transformative power of love to bring the world around us to life. Harvest this poem for the frost-bitten months to come.
12. A Psalm For The One by Tiana Clark
A seamless fusion of our time and the days of old kings, Tiana Clark’s visceral “A Psalm For The One” explores the intimate side of the biblical king David. This piece’s drifting, musicality traces love’s perfect expectations, to fulfillment, to disillusionment: “I held his hand on the streets walking home, / thought I heard a voice say He was the one, but— / the summer wind can mimic almost any wish.” And at the close of the psalm, we can’t help but feel we’ve all met someone we used to believe was the one. Amen.
13. How To Talk by Caleb Kaiser
“How To Talk” by Caleb Kaiser thins the boundary between openness and intimacy in its mapping of the geography of the physical body. The exposure of the bodies “soaked in June, rubbing like a forest” connects something private with the outside world, lending this poem a sense of vulnerability. As suggested by the title, this pieces also portrays erotic love as a teaching, emboldening force: “You said you couldn’t dance. / I cupped your hips and showed you / how trees swayed.” And as the confession in the second-to-last stanza proves, the lesson worked.
14. On The Nights My Lover Dreams of Drowning by Amber Rambharose
As Amber Rambharose’s poem “On The Nights My Lover Dreams of Dreaming” reveals, some kinds of pain love cannot fix. Rambharose effortlessly blends a haunting metaphor about drowning and a striking metaphor about bullets: “I have learned / that there are times when the decision must be made not to cut / through muscle, to let shrapnel swim forever.” This piece highlights the destructive power of empathy; when those you love are drowning, you cannot help but feel the chasm as well.
15. Alone With Mother by Chloe Honum
Love isn’t always romantic. Chloe Honum’s poem, “Alone With Mother,” packages an entire world and the subjects’ freedom from its demands in a few, poignant lines: “Like runaways, we were free / of the house and its babble: / pill bottle labels, shopping lists.” And like the silence that follows, “a kind of love between us,” nothing more needs to be said.
16. Orientalism by Tory Adkisson
“Now is a time for romance, / comedy, maybe even a little / catharsis,” writes Tory Adkisson in his post-war poem, “Orientalism.” But even after the battle, some divides never disappear. Embedded in an overarching metaphor about cinema, the poem references the 1993 Chinese film Farewell My Concubine and its protagonist, a male Peking opera star who plays the concubine of a king, the actor of whom he falls in love with in real life. Similarly, Adkisson’s poem mirrors the blurring of theatre and life, between abandoning ingrained societal script, or letting the predetermined role direct one’s life.
17. All Those Whom I Have Loved by Gregory Djanikian (at the bottom of the page)
As our list draws to a close, we want to say goodbye properly. Heartbreaking in its simplicity, Gregory Djanikian’s poem “All Those Whom I Have Loved” faces head-on the terrifying prospect of the end, of leaving your loved ones. More terrifying still: perhaps we have not loved enough, and grieving the end itself is time wasted. As Djanikian writes, “not even what has held me here / shamelessly and without reason / at the edge of my small poignancies” will matter in the face of the undiscerning grief that follows. But even as the lines dwindle to a single breath, our time with this poem, or any poem, never has to end.
18. When I Say I Love You, This Is What I Mean by Kenzie Allen
While Djanikian prepares us for the inevitable farewell, Kenzie Allen’s poem considers how we keep the memories. “When I Say I Love You, This Is What I Mean” exposes the anxiety of novice and experienced writers alike: What if we can’t “make it stay?” What if we can’t capture “the way you asked my skin to sing for you / or how your scalp locks the scent/of Oregon?” In that case, as Allen demonstrates in swirling, ethereal imagery, we immortalize ourselves in metaphor, we become the “light / through the fogged air of that mountain,” we ink ourselves into something stronger.
Meimei Xu works as an Adroit content intern. She is a junior at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA, and her work has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and the Library of Congress. Currently haunting the hills of Atlanta, GA, she has also made homes in Miami, Chicago, and Nanjing, China. Her ideal home, however, adopts the contours of the writing and art dearest to her heart.