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What to Write in a Valentine’s Day Card, According to a Poet

There was Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, eighth grade and love struck, walking the mile and a half out, a mile and a half back, to buy his first bunch of roses. It’s the ’90s, and his girlfriend, who had recently pulled him under a stairwell, mashed her face into his and announced they were now dating, deserved flowers for Valentine’s Day, no matter the cost. So at a phone-booth-sized stand curiously located behind a White Castle, he paid way too much for his first dozen. And after a long, long walk, he presented the bouquet on her doorstep. “Of course, she was flattered,” he remembers, “but if I remember correctly, when I got there, someone on the basketball team was already at her house.”

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McFadyen-Ketchum, a ghostwriter and editor whose second collection of poetry, Visiting Hours, was released in March 2020, has the same type of Valentine’s Day memories as most guys: the unrequited love, the doomed dates in Mexican restaurants, and the miscommunication that can plague every relationship. But over his career and within his modern relationship, he’s learned how — and most importantly, what — to communicate. So sharpen your quill and dip your tip, because this Valentine’s Day, when your aching brain must decide what to write in a Valentine’s Day card, listen to the bard: Stick to the truth.

Write to the Only One

Your partner is it, the only one. The one with whom you want to walk, to talk, to fight about take-out and in-laws and life plans. “You are the only person I feel these ways about,” says McFadyen-Ketchum. Everyone wants to know that he or she is the one, and your message should remind and reaffirm him or her that he or she is the source of your love, your affection, and your intimacy. “You are it,” he says. “I’m not getting that from anyone else, and that really makes you unique and important.” That faithfulness to your partner and only your partner builds greater intimacy, and in that intimacy is the essential component of a successful relationship.

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Write to the One with Whom You’re Safe

“Most men, we’ve had some relationships that, you realize later, you’re not safe with,” says McFadyen-Ketchum. Lies, cheating, or just antipathy are all killers. But within the confines of your present relationship, you’re safe. So say that. You don’t have to spout a bunch of stuff about how you feel like you’re locked in the tower of his or her love or mouth the lyrics to a Peter Cetera song. But just mentioning the safety you have with him or her, the Us-versus-the-World mindset you feel when together, is enough. Your partner will love it.

Write to the One You Want

That one time in that one place? Very hot, and may you have thousands more of them. But McFadyen-Ketchum is quick to clarify: “Not desired,” he says, “but wanted.” Yes, I want you here. I want to see you, I want to talk to you, and I want to have this really frustrating argument with you right now. The point is that each day, each minute, represents a choice, and you’re choosing your partner with every tick of the second hand. This also quells a deep-seated fear, as every failed relationship comes to the point where one person realizes their partner no longer wants them. So if you want the person you’re with and everything that comes with it, write it down.

Write to Beautiful Things

We all want beautiful things in our lives, from art to music to the new Jeep Gladiator Overland Diesel. Whether your partner is more Kevin Bacon or Kevin James, you find him or her beautiful. Say that. “Maybe that’s kind of surface-y, but don’t tell me every woman doesn’t want to hear that, because they do,” McFadyen-Ketchum says. “I’ve never met a woman who doesn’t want to be told by her partner that she’s beautiful.”

Write with Vulnerability

McFadyen-Ketchum thinks of another poem which he often quotes, one by Wallace Stevens: “Death is the mother of beauty.” The rose is beautiful because it fades; the sunset is strongest before its light dims forever. As McFadyen-Ketchum says, “If you don’t risk having a bad party, you can’t have a good party.” When you put it out there, you risk getting crushed like an eighth grade boy with a handful of flowers seeing a varsity basketball player on the couch just inside. In that risk is honesty, he says. “If you can’t be hurt, you can’t be in love.” So, whatever you write, risk it all. It’s the only way forward.

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