- Introduction to Focus:Erotic Poetry
My guest editorship of this issue of American Book Review began with a modest piece called "Porn Poetry" posted on Paris Review Daily, 16th of August, 2016. There, I complain that we English-speakers have no substantial tradition of erotic poetry in our own language, if we define "erotic poetry" as poetical works whose primary aim is to sexually arouse the reader. My claim was that what we have instead is a small hill of material that might turn somebody on accidentally—merely because sexual themes are touched upon—but whose primary purpose is aggressive, satiric.
This line of thought is not easily resisted, I think. Almost all the famous not-safe-for-work poetry in English treats sex as an inherently humbling business, and the nastiness and heartlessness with which the theme is handled reveals—so I asserted—a desire for a kind of revenge on sex itself. Most of my favorite writers are like this. Rochester, Swift, Beckett. I'll put it this way: For most Anglophone writers, "sex" and "piggishness" are near-synonyms. Naturally there are exceptions; I'm saying they're few.
In 2002, a friend of mine brought a very special book to my attention. At the time, I was self-medicating with poetry a great deal, as I was preparing for my English Lit oral exams at the University of Chicago. I had a lot of reading to do, and my way of playing hooky from doing it was to type up poems I admired and e-mail them to my friends. The subject line always read "POETRY CHANNEL," along with the poem's title and the author's name and that of the translator (if applicable). Also the date when the piece was written. My admittedly flexible ideal was to send my friends poems they could not possibly have seen otherwise, because the works were, for example, buried in hundred-year-old publications of ethnographic societies, or scholarly books about the place of Buddhism in the poet's life, and so on. Erotic material was not common, but I do remember sending a provocative selection from a book called The Bedbugs' Night Dance and Other Hopi Tales of Sexual Encounter (1995).
Somebody might imagine this latter item, drawn from a particularly rich fund of traditional Native American storytelling, would escape my objection about sexually themed literature being so frequently a way of processing anxiety. But that person would be about as wrong as wrong could be. The stories, told in beautiful deadpan, are hilarious precisely because of the ways they make the audience squirm with discomfort. I urge anyone who doubts what I am saying to order the book—it costs nothing, online—and read the story called "Horned Lizard Family."
But to get back to the special book my friend recommended. It's called Not Far from the River: Poems from the Gāthā Saptaśati (1990), translated by David Ray. Ian told me about it, not as a remedy for any of the concerns I'm talking about here, but rather simply as a good read for anybody with a lively interest in foreign poetry. The book is a free translation of more than 300 erotic epigrams, originally composed in Mahārāṣṭri Prākṛt, the ancestor of modern Marathi. All the poems are four lines long. They are all about situations and body parts and taxonomy and longing. But mainly situations and body parts.
The book fucked me up for life. Over and over I tell young poets: "Please write this book. Or something just like it. Write a book that will do people some actual good. . . ." The main thing is the angle. It's not satirical. The poems are not a way of processing fear and disgust. Instead, each one is simply a generous hand-off to the reader, from the poet, of some gem of erotic imagination.
There is no way to do it justice with a few snippets, but I have to give you something:
Rare sight, a woman lost in the trance,making love. Beautiful—so long as her eyesremain open, like blue of...