In a week when the head of the domestic violence charity Wearside Women in Need has called for E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (sales in excess of 40 million and counting) to be publicly burned, one might well be prompted to wonder whether poetry is capable of raising temperatures to quite such a degree. Is poetry in this as in other ways fiction’s poor relation – or rather her priggish cousin – high-minded, vegetarian, sandal-wearing and frankly, not much fun?
It is true that sex in poetry is often a serious business, not least in the long and distinguished tradition of erotic poetry that has come down to us from antiquity. Sappho’s famous Fragment 31 speaks of the power of eros to effect what Rimbaud termed ‘a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses [by] every form of love, of suffering, of madness’:
That man is peer of the gods, who
face to face sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely
It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast. At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears
Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down. I grow
paler than grass and lack little
– translated by William Carlos Williams
Rimbaud’s dictum (dérèglement de tous les sens), issued when he was in his teens, has since doubtless licensed a great deal of maudit-inspired self indulgence. In these days, when poets – arguably to poetry’s loss, although not to theirs – are likely to obsess more about which school they should get their MFA from and the best career path to follow afterwards, being subjected to a long and prodigious absinthe-and-sex fuelled disordering of the kind that used to be standard-issue might be seen as a nuisance and a distraction.
Nevertheless the greatest verse has always struck a fine balance between the self-loss and suffering of passion on the one hand, and the reassertion of control on the other. The ability to discipline and elevate lust’s vertiginous excesses is one of poetry’s greatest achievements. Sappho’s virtuoso metrics in the original fragment is an obvious example, and that specifically classical tradition of honed eroticism can be seen as late as the 20th Century in C P Cavafy’s melancholic evocations of desire for the young men he encountered in the cafes of Alexandria: ‘He’s lost him utterly. And from now on he seeks / in the lips of every new lover that he takes / the lips of that one: his. Coupling with every new / lover that he takes he longs to be mistaken.’ (Trans. Daniel Mendelsohn). In Cavafy the poet-historian, Eros is inevitably refracted through the long lens of historical time as well as autobiography, and it is this subtle intellectual layering which gives his erotic verse its depth and its poignancy. It is extremely sexy, but not just for kicks – physical kicks at any rate.
A striking exemplar of this tradition in Irish poetry is Michael Longley, who has used the template of classical eroticism for some of his most successful poems (even Yeats’s ‘hair tent’ love poems are too Pre-Raphaelite and bloodlessly disembodied to be really sexy). Longley included a fine version after Cavafy, ‘Cavafy’s Desires’ in one of his collections from the 1990s, and his versions from Ovid capture eroticism’s dynamic and disturbing energies without sacrificing wit; the arachnophobe’s obscure object of desire:
Enticing the eight eyes of my imagination
To make love on her lethal doily, to dangle sperm
Like teardrops from an eyelash, massage it into her
While I avoid the spinnerets – navel, vulva, bum –
And the widening smile behind her embroidery.
The eroticism of Longley’s poetry has also provided a counterbalancing scale of intimate value to set against a troubled public reality, as in ‘On Mweelrea,’ which has always reminded me of Paul Brady’s ‘The Island.’ At the risk of overstating this aspect of his poetry, its eroticism harks back, in a gentle way, to the bawdier and more explicit socially subversive traditions identifiable in Rochester or Byron. Genuinely erotic poetry is difficult to pull off (pun intended), which is why the detumescence of humour or scurrilousness always comes as a relief. There is something vaguely Frankie Howerd-ish about the Earl of Rochester’s escapades; for instance, the enfant terrible of the court of Charles II once mistakenly handed the king a predictably blue satire on his own royal personage – ‘Peace is his aim, his gentleness is such, / And love he loves, for he loves fucking much’ – and was obliged to flee court for a time, eventually to be gathered back into the fold like the beloved prodigal he was. ‘Ooh you are awful’ seems to have been the standard reaction, but in truth Rochester’s bawdiness, like Swift’s, has a deadly serious point to make: ‘Fantastic fancies fondly move / And in frail joys believe, / Taking false pleasure for true love; / But pain can ne’er deceive’. That last line is startlingly similar to the maidenish Emily Dickinson’s ‘I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true” and Rochester’s x-rated outlook is of a piece with his similarly flayed perception of reality and a highly ironized puncturing of social and sexual hypocrisies.
Reading Rochester is an astringent corrective to the kind of erotic verse that takes itself terribly seriously, to the point of straying unforgivably into the territory of TMI. The permissiveness of metaphor has led to all kinds of excesses – a distinguished male poet comparing his virile member to a vegetable, in one memorable instance – but chief among perpetrators has to be the American poet Sharon Olds, whose sexual encounters are always of the pantingly sacramental kind; toe-curling, but not in a good way – at least not for the reader. In ‘After Making Love in Winter’, where most poets would probably be sitting up and lighting a cigarette, Olds is in rapt self-contemplation: ‘I can / feel my ovaries deep in my body, I / gaze at the silvery bulbs, maybe I am / looking at my ovaries, it is / clear everything I look at is real / and good. We have come to the end of questions...’ To which one can only respond, ‘quite.’ Perhaps the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards might in future be persuaded to extend their remit from fiction to some of poetry’s habitual offenders?« Return to listings