- Some Thoughts in Favor of Erotic Poetry
Sexiness is complicated. If you try too hard at being sexy, it's awful. If you try too hard to be sexy in a poem, it's maybe even worse. All of us have sat through an attempt at smoldering hotness at the lectern during a poetry reading. You feel the room wince.
But the alternative I find torturous, too: the reaction against that kind of poor attempt at sexiness. It's poetry that deliberately avoids being enamored, even being interested in human beauty or sex. This is pretty common in contemporary poets. The idea is it's somehow intellectually feeble to even make the attempt. Maybe it's too connected to the English Romantics's currently unpopular vision of beauty. Erotic poetry is essentially out of the question: you only bring up sex or desire obliquely, in order to lance the whole business in a cynical move or as meaningless, always doomed, and moronic. I have also heard this a lot at poetry readings, especially among my younger peers.
I want to reclaim the idea that erotic poetry is worthwhile, that moments of the erotic, whether sly or tender or bald, are a thrilling part of English verse and many other poetic traditions (Latin America, China, India—none of these places have been shy about erotic verse.). I sense this intellectual-Puritanical bent that suggests you're a lightweight if you write about physical beauty or sex. I don't know when we decided it's passé, but it has something to do with the thinking that poems aren't supposed to be about anything at all. Call me outdated, but some of the central pleasures of poetry for me are still those of description: when a poet captures how they feel about being in bed with someone, or the extent of their madness in wanting someone, or just their perfect hair or butt or feet.
I still remember a moment in August Wilson's Fences (1983) when a main character says women with big thighs are better for having sex with: "like you riding on Goodyears!" I haven't read that play in ten years, and that line has stuck in my head for being funny, scandalous, and bluntly sexy.
The trouble is, I do fall short of being able to name what it is that keeps great erotic poetry from being tawdry. I don't know how to name it, but I do love it when I see it. After all, what's better than being alive and wanting to get someone naked so bad you can't think straight? What's better than hearing other people say so, especially if those people are excellent at verse?
Here are some examples I love. They are sexy; they are also great poetry.
This is the first verse of John Donne's morning-after poem, "The Good-morrow:"
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and IDid, till we lov'd; were we not wean'd till then?But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly?Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den?'Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be:If ever any beauty did I see,Which I desir'd, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.
1) Those first two lines are an understated but powerful compliment to a lover. You wake up and look at the person next to you and say, "What were we even doing before we hooked up, were we still kids?" Certainly I'd be flattered to hear this.
2) Then there's that "But suck'd on country pleasures. . ." Overtly, Donne's using "sucked" for the continuing breastfeeding imagery, but wow. He's making himself pretty clear about what the "country pleasures" might be. I also laugh at the word "snorted" in the next line. Between "sucked" and "snort'd," their great guttural quality and the slippery alliteration, it's all got an animal hue.
3) The last two lines. There's this moment where Donne manages to make this reference to the lovers—all beautiful—he's gotten to have before the person to whom he's...