To celebrate Valentine’s Day, I’ve asked some writers I admire to pick their favorite love themed essay, story, poem, or song.
For me, it comes down to Sandra Cisneros’ one-page story “Bread,” which is aching and vibrant and sexy and sad, and the first paragraph of Susan Orlean’s profile of an average boy, “The American Man, Age Ten”: “If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks. We would wear shorts, big sneakers, and long, baggy T-shirts depicting famous athletes every single day, even in the winter. We would sleep in our clothes….For fun, we would load a slingshot with dog food and shoot it at my butt.” The rest of the essay isn’t about imaginary love, but the creativity and energy of that opening has always amazed me.
Now, onto the pros.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead
I was going to say, Emerson's essay on Love, which has a lot of good passages in it, including, "The passion rebuilds the world for the youth" and "In the noon and the afternoon of life we still throb at the recollection of days when happiness was not happy enough, but must be drugged with the relish of pain and fear; for he touched the secret of the matter, who said of love, 'All other pleasures are not worth its pains."
But I think most of Bacon's essay "Of Love," a disturbing piece because of how its prose seems to shudder with fear. Bacon genuinely feared love, its destructive tendencies, its power to undo otherwise sane-seeming people, "for in life it doth much mischief; sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury." Don't quote him in any love letters. But that rebound relationship your friends are telling you is really bad for you? Read this before you marry that person. "This passion hath his floods, in very times of weakness; which are great prosperity, and great adversity; though this latter hath been less observed: both which times kindle love, and make it more fervent, and therefore show it to be the child of folly."
Chloe Caldwell, author of Legs Get Led Astray
I'm choosing the essay "The Perfect Pair" by Erika Kleinman, as it's a nearly perfect essay conveying the difficulty of love and acceptance.
Josh Lieberman, creator of Carry On
If you consider Bob Dylan's entire output—and be sure to lay in supplies, for it will be a long and weird listening sesh—only a small fraction of the man's tunes are "love songs" in the purest sense: guy meets girl, love ensues; if things sour, wistfulness and/or begging occurs. Dylan's got plenty of time to passively aggress ("I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind / You could have done better but I don't mind") or to bitterly, bitterly recriminate ("You know as well as me / You'd rather see me paralyzed"). Basically it's a whole lot of jilting going on, and to hear Dylan tell it, he's a man more scorned against than scorning. (But come on, there's no way that dating Dylan isn't about as trying and strange as sitting down to tea with a griffin.)
All of this is to say that while vinegar-free Dylan love songs are not as common as Bob-gets-burned tunes, those that do exist are some of the best, most timeless songs e'er writ, and picking just one (as I've only been sort of tasked to do) is like choosing from among eight of your children who you like a great deal. Any unscientific list of best Dylan love songs would have to include "Mama, You Been on My Mind," "If You See Her, Say Hello," "Girl From the North Country," "Simple Twist of Fate"...
Let me stop myself and for the sake of picking pick the love song "Boots of Spanish Leather." While the 1963 studio recording is unassailable, lately I've had this live 1999 version in heavy rotation. I like this more recent vintage because I find it interesting to think of the ballad's narrator not as round-faced, 22-year-old Bob Dylan, but as old man Dylan. Is he reminiscing, three decades on, about a lost love from his youth, or is the wound more recent—is he a 60-year-old whose wife has just left? Either way, here is a love song undiminished and even more powerful for the years. To think that Dylan's ballad is a half-century old, and that night after night, on his endless world tours, poor Bob still laments the women who left him. Maybe it's no surprise that the tenderest love song from his most recent album contains not just the line, "I'm searching for phrases / To sing your praises," but also, "I'll drag his corpse through the mud."
Come Thursday, I sincerely hope that Bob has a Valentine.
Erin Somers, Barnstorm Editor-in-Chief
My favorite piece of writing about love is Robert Boswell's story "Smoke," though it's more about sex than romance. Three teenage boys on a camping trip smoke and talk about their sexual experiences so far, lying through their teeth of course. It doesn't sound like much the way I'm describing it, but Boswell's execution is devastating: "It's too simple to say they describe the roundness of women's breasts because they cannot say they love their mothers. Neither can they say that they love the world, nor that they feel the rending weight of it. But they can say buck naked and big tits, and if they need to say something that has nothing to do with sex, they speak of sex anyway: annoyed, screw it; pleased, bitchin'. When forced to speak of their love for one another, they say fuck you, man, you suck the big one." A perfect short story.
Alexis, who wrote this note inside a copy of In Cold Blood, which I bought at a used book store fifteen years later
After considering all options for several weeks, I finally came to the conclusion that nothing says, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” quite like In Cold Blood. So here you have it, this is my “black carnation” to you. I hope you enjoy it, it’s really an incredible book. Darling, you amaze me. I love you.