Poetry tends to get a bad rap in our culture, for its obtuseness, inaccessibility, and its pesky habit of making us think and feel things we maybe don’t want to think or feel.
And yet poetry has the capacity to be the most life-changing of the arts. Poetry changes the way we see and experience the world, reveals aspects of our lives and loves we may have lost sight of, and opens us up to the transformative possibilities of language. In its astonishing yet simple way, poetry allows us to reconnect with a world that often feels like it takes us for granted.
The following are poems that speak to the emotions specific to different phases in relationships—from first date jitters to decades-long loves to soul-crushing breakups. Also, some of these are excerpts. Poems with links in the title will take you to the full versions.
When you’re infatuated and everything feels intense but vague and uncertain
“Let’s Live Suddenly Without Thinking” by e.e. cummings
let’s live like the light that kills
and let’s as silence,
because Whirl’s after all:
(after me)love,and after you.
I occasionally feel vague how
vague idon’t know tenuous Now-
spears and The Then-arrows making do
our mouths something red,something tall
When you’re trying to convince someone to go on a date with you
Anything by Rumi, but this one in particular:
Come to the orchard in Spring.
There is light and wine, and sweethearts
in the pomegranate flowers.
If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter.
When they’re playing hard to get
“Evil” by Langston Hughes
Looks like what drives me crazy
Don’t have no effect on you—
But I’m gonna keep on at it
Till it drives you crazy, too.
When you’re first dating and everything is playful and warm and sexy
“Some People” by Wendy Cope
Some people like sex more than others—
You seem to like it a lot.
There’s nothing wrong with being innocent or high minded
But I’m glad you’re not.
When you are in the first blush of love and their habits are still cute and you want to shout from the rooftops
“Steps“ by Frank O’Hara
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much
When you finally have sex again after a long dry spell
“I Like My Body When It Is With Your” by e.e. cummings
i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones,and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz
of your electric furr,and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh….And eyes big love-crumbs,
and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you so quite new
When you find yourself thinking, “You know, there really aren’t enough poems about blow jobs”
“The Platonic Blow” W.H. Auden
I plunged with a rhythmical lunge steady and slow,
And at every stroke made a corkscrew roll with my tongue.
His soul reeled in the feeling. He whimpered “Oh!”
As I tongued and squeezed and rolled and tickled and swung.
When you’re a queer gal and are tired of people asking you how “lesbian sex” works
Haiku by Anna Pulley (Shameless plug!)
Picture foreplay that
lasts longer than a few seconds.
Now, add crying.
When you’re in a long-distance relationship or just missing your sweetheart
“May You Always Be the Darling of Fortune” by Jane Miller
March 10th and the snow flees like eloping brides
into rain. The imperceptible change begins
out of an old rage and glistens, chaste, with its new
craving, spring. May your desire always overcome
your need; your story that you have to tell,
enchanting, mutable, may it fill the world
you believe: a sunny view, flowers lunging
from the sill, the quilt, the chair, all things
fill with you and empty and fill. And hurry, because
now as I tire of my studied abandon, counting
the days, I’m sad. Yet I trust your absence, in everything
wholly evident: the rain in the white basin, and I
When you want to take your sweetheart out on a fancy date but are broke
“Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” by W. B. Yeats
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
When you want longing to overtake you
“Let Birds” by Linda Gregg
Let birds, let birds.
Let leaf be passion.
Let jaw, let teeth, let tongue be
between us. Let joy.
Let entering. Let rage and calm join.
Let quail come.
Let winter impress you. Let spring.
Allow the ocean to wake in you.
Let the mare in the field
in the summer morning mist
make you whinny. Make you come
to the fence and whinny. Let birds.
When you’re fighting and seeking advice on how to grow together
“On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
When the years just keep getting better and better
“Plain Love” by Adelia Prado, translated by Ellen Watson
Tough as old boots, plain love is scrawny, sex-mad,
and has as many children as you can imagine.
It makes up for not speaking by doing.
It plants three-colored kisses all around the house,
purple and white longings,
both the simple and the intense.
Plain love is good because it doesn’t grow old.
It concentrates on the essential, what glitters in its eyes
is what it is
When you’re in a long-term relationship and you’re stressed and have maybe forgotten the exquisiteness of your partner a little
“Hand Games” by Marge Piercy
Mostly the television is on
and the washer is running and the kettle
shrieks it’s boiling while the telephone
rings. Mostly we are worrying about
the fuel bill and how to pay the taxes
and whether the diet is working
when the moment of vulnerability
lights on the nose like a blue moth
and flitters away through clouds of mosquitoes
and the humid night. In the leaking
sieve of our bodies we carry
the blood of love.
When it’s over but you’re nostalgic and grandiose and just want to feel an ounce of connection to something, anything
“Bay Poem from Berkeley” by Sandra Cisneros
Mornings I still
reach for you before
opening my eyes.
An antique habit from
last summer when we pulled
each other into the heat of groin
and belly, slept with an arm
around the other.
The Texas sun was like that.
Like a body asleep beside you.
But when I open my eyes
to the flannel and down,
mist at the window and blue
light from the bay, I remember
where I am.
on the other side of the bed
is only books, not you. What
I said I loved more than you.
Though these mornings
I wish books loved back
When a relationship or sex are the furthest things from your mind
“Mock Orange” by Louise Gluck
It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man’s mouth
sealing my mouth, the man’s
and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union—
In my mind tonight
I hear the question and pursuing answer
fused in one sound
that mounts and mounts and then
is split into the old selves,
the tired antagonisms. Do you see?
We were made fools of.
When it’s O.V.E.R.
“Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes” by Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell
She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.
She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.
She was already root.
And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around —,
she could not understand, and softly answered
When it’s O.V.E.R. and you could not be happier about that
“Epistolary” by Jill Alexander Essbaum
I shall be brief, but frank,
Terse if not curt, aloof, though unswerving—
What little we had amounted to nothing.
And yet I write you this missive, as if.
I sit on a sandbank as I scribe this,
For tonight the twilit beach is impossibly
Gorgeous. No wind, no fog, no moody
Sorts of weather. No the two of us together
Like the last time, but whatever.
And on the verge of this horizon’s indifference,
I watch as a ship slips into the distance.
And with it, my resistance to our over-ness.
Well, well. What a tideswell that idled between us.
The untidy-up-able mess
Of your meanness, piles of petty treasons
Birthed like broken promises, breech.
But I have not rung your cell phone now for weeks.
So our terminus no more consumes me.
And irrevocable dolors no more entomb me.
You have not ruined me.
When you’re struggling with your sexuality or identity or even finding the right words to explain your heart
“we all nourish truth with our tongues” by Dorothy Allison
I learned then that what no one would say
was the thing about which nothing could be done.
If they would not say Lesbian
I could not say pride.
If they would not say Queer
I could not say courage.
If they would not name me
Bastard, worthless, stupid, whore
I could not grab onto my own spoken language,
my love for my kind, myself. …
Then with no walls around us, you and I
will speak of truth to each other,
the soil that grows the vegetable
as deeply as the flower that never
touches the soil.
When the relationship wasn’t meant to be but the sex was fantastic
“The Word” by Dorianne Laux
You called it screwing, what we did nights
on the rug in front of the mirror, draped
over the edge of a hotel bed, on balconies
overlooking the dark hearts of fir trees
or a city of flickering lights. You’d
whisper that word into my ear
as if it were a thing you could taste —
a sliver of fish, a swirl of chocolate
on the tongue. …
And your voice
comes back to me through the trees, this word
for what we couldn’t help but do
to each other — a thin cry, unwinding.
When you have “mastered the art of giving yourself for the sake of someone else”
“Say Yes” by Andrea Gibson
When you’re stuck and memories are both your only pain and only solace
“Heaven” by Patrick Phillips
It will be the past
and we’ll live there together.
Not as it was to live
but as it is remembered.
It will be the past.
We’ll all go back together.
Everyone we ever loved,
and lost, and must remember.
It will be the past.
And it will last forever.
When you’ve broken up, but can’t stay away from them
“And Then” by Francesca Bell
the man remembers your body,
remembers to love you again,
flicks you like a switch
that has waited, ready
in the room’s shadows.
Loneliness rises from each
of your skin. You are so
eager you are humiliated,
rushing forth like a hound
loosed in woods, your cry
like joy or keening, a baying
that bursts out of you, months
of waiting become sound. After,
the man sleeps, peaceful, but you
are a door he’s opened, a path
grown over now beaten
back down. You feel his life,
which will end before yours,
slide slowly away into the dark.
When you’re grieving the loss of something momentous, but starting to feel okay about it
“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Want more stuff like this? Sign up for my newsletter and get overly personal emails, tips on sex, wellness, and productivity, and occasional lesbian haiku.