Many years ago, several ardent admirers wrote poems about me in wonderful, lusty, funny, romantic, and adoring prose. These were presented to me as gifts, for my amusement and, of course, to gain favor. My question: I would like to print some of these delightful poems. Do I own them, or can I use them only if I give the writers credit? Suppose I can't locate my admirers or they are deceased?
Authors automatically hold copyright in their written work. Even if your former admirers did not seek formal federal registration, they still possess the copyright. Any copyright holder has the exclusive right to reproduce, sell, and distribute the protected material, whether that material is a book, a movie, or a poem.
How long does an author’s copyright last? The length of a copyright term is a somewhat complex question, depending on when the work was created and the type of work in question. The term of most copyrights is the life of the author plus 70 years.
Under this definition, your former admirers probably still own the copyrights in poems they wrote for you during your relationship. You would need to acquire their permission, in writing, before publishing them. This is assuming, however, that these poets never assigned or licensed the copyright to you. This sort of transfer of their right would have been in writing, and would have been a somewhat unromantic (and unlikely) gesture.
So what can you do? You can reach out to them to request permission. Or, if they have passed away, you can reach out to their estates, which would have the ability to grant you permission. For more on permissions, read Getting Permission, by Rich Stim.
Note that nothing prevents you from keeping your copy of the poems, or even lending it to a friend. Under the first sale doctrine, the individual who has possession of the copyrighted work (you) has the right to sell, display, or dispose of that particular copy, without offending the rights of the copyright owner. In other words, if your former lover gave you a copy of a poem, you can do what you like with that one single copy.