- Some Thoughts On Erotic Poetry
1. Sex gets boring; the erotic spices it up. Language gets boring; poetry spices it up. We expect them both to do too much.
2. "Erotic" and "poetic:" each the kind of word, as Elizabeth Bishop said of "friend," that "spreads all over the place, and tells nothing of the actual place it means to name." Their power is in the spreading, not the naming.
3. Erotic poetry should be an easy place to find. Its syllabus is remarkably, suspiciously, invariable: Sappho and Ovid, Catullus and the Song of Songs. The Whitman of Calamus and Stein of "Lifting Belly." Cavafy, the troubadours, the Amarushataka. Sufis in an allegorical mood. Donne before the preaching. Naughty Herrick and nasty Swinburne. You'll have more you want to add, but I bet you wouldn't take any of these away.
4. "Erotic" and "poetic" both resist definition, hazy enough to pass as universals. That's part of their appeal; when we're feeling relativistic and alone, dizzy on the accelerant of history, they attract with the thought that everyone's always felt this, always done it.
5. Is any poem about sex erotic? The Earl of Rochester—filthiest poet in English—neatly detaches erotic mooning from earthy fucking:
Were all my body larded o'er,With darts of love, so thick,That you might find in ev'ry pore,A well stuck standing prick;
Whilst yet my eyes alone were free,My heart, would never doubt,In am'rous rage, and ecstasy,To wish those eyes, to wish those eyes fucked out.
Given the right mood, I guess a cock from every pore might be erotic, like the promise to fuck the beloved's brains (or eyes) out. But so too is Elizabeth Bishop, inviting her lover to come wash her hair:
The shooting stars in your black hairin bright formationare flocking where,so straight, so soon?—Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,battered and shiny like the moon.
Come, let me wash it.
6. The erotic's less about subject matter than mood: an interpretive aphrodisiac. In this way, it's like the poetic. Get your reader into the right state and any language feels like poetry. Late Ashbery's got this down cold:
Out there, the air is moist Ican tell walking through it.Thank you so much for coming in.It's late isn't it,almost grotesque.My crew will be in touch.
The line breaks, taming statement into stanza; the metrical symmetries, "off" enough to sound spoken but nearly matching—two lines of four stresses, a line of five, another four; the near rhymes ("I," "it," "in"/"grotesque," "touch"): all work the reader up into the mood of poetry. But the content's studiedly anti-poetic in its diction and content, its stock phrases and clichés. Like camp turns a lamp into a "lamp," the poetic, once it's signaled, can bracket nearly any phrase as "poetry."
A touch from any part of her had done 't:
Her hand, her foot, her very look's a cunt. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, "The Imperfect Enjoyment"
7. Imperfect enjoyment: the hard truth of erotic poetry? Reading some might help get you into the mood, but so long as you're reading, the pleasure it points to is deferred. Reading's inherently unsexy. Inward, mostly solitary, it asks very little from the body. Like anything, it can be eroticized. The exchange between reader and writer lends itself easily to metaphors of penetration, top and bottom, onanistic pleasure or the masochist's surrender. But dress it up however you like, the sex stays metaphoric. Unless sex itself is a metaphor, at its best when it points to something beyond itself. Enjoyment's imperfect: the hard truth of erotic poetry?
8. Cuffed as it is to the symbolic, an erotic poem may expose something crucial about both sex and poetry. "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." It's the "physically" that tingles. Without it, we're in the safe room of simile: "as...