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  • Erotic Zygote:"Leda and the Swan"
  • Adrienne Raphel (bio)

I tried to write this essay about poems about animals having sex with animals—horse on horse, pangolin on platypus—but these poems just didn't feel erotic to me. Sexy, oh yeah; carnal, duh; but I was just still too conscious of my meta-brain, here I am thinking about sex. (John Berryman has a phrase, "the thinky death.") I tried to write cleverly about slant rhyme, bodies bumping into each other without quite fitting, the erotics of the near-miss. I had an idea about the pornographic and the grapheme that thankfully stayed an idea. I had an image of courtly love, the courtesan and the poem as the mask in the masquerade ball. I'm thinking about flirting, the clever tease, dangling puns around, ducking in and around my own feelings in intricate ways.

But erotic is harder: erotic is being open, frank. Erotic is about getting past the rococo trappings of increasingly elaborate repression: how do I get out of my own way to be me? How can poetry get at the erotic, and open us up to be more than ourselves?

I went back to the first poem I remember making me actually realize I was feeling something not just beyond myself, but deeper in. "Leda and the Swan" wasn't the first sexy poem I read (head out of the gutter: I'm not talking "Hickory Dickory Dock" or "The Owl and the Pussycat"), but it was the first poem I really remember feeling a kind of electric response that wasn't wholly above the belt. I read it early in high school, right after I'd reached puberty. Freshman year English class, one of those doorstopper library-issue hardcovers that surely had the sex drained from it in the 1970s. I didn't know I was going to get gobsmacked.

There's been an abundance of quill-scratching about this poem—certainly, too much—but it's the first poem, for me, that made me realize that poetry happened inside the body, and inside all parts of the body. The erotic is about sex, for sure, and the energy of "Leda and the Swan" is about that sex, but the erotic is more than that: it's poetry that actually gets at all the nerve endings without steering into being safe.

The subject of "Leda and the Swan" lets the poem be erotic instead of neurotic. We're already over the surprise of the subject from the title of the poem. "Leda and the Swan": yes, we're in that myth. And this is not a happy, consensual love story: Zeus, as swan, overtakes Leda and violently rapes her. Yeats has a lot of tension and energy in his hands, and we feel that intensity, of course; but he's also working against the fact that we know that we're in a story built on something that's fundamentally abhorrent, male domination, female subjugation, the privilege of the god overtaking the voiceless woman––it's the terrible, persistent narrative pounded into us again. There's no apology that Yeats can make for forcing us to revisit this rape, and the question of whether he sidesteps its horror by prioritizing vivid beauty, is a live question.

Not to put that aside, but I want to think about how this poem works, and works on us. And there are plenty of other levels going on here. It's also a myth, and we've got to remember that Zeus is a swan: this is harsh stuff, but it's also utterly aestheticized. This is an erotic poem. Not all of these energies at work are friendly, and not all of them are energies we want, or want to desire, or actually desire—but they're there, and there's a there there because of them. Because the surprise isn't that we're talking about sex, we can actually enter the dangerous zone: how does this poem get us to feel? We know it's sex, but how is it erotic?

Sex isn't subtle. Yeats gets power on the macro level from...


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