A little while back I objected to Fence Magazine’s claim that it published poetry out of the mainstream. If you really want to be out of the mainstream (said I) shunned, censored and (depending on the country) possibly killed or imprisoned, try writing freely and openly about sex—about our erotic lives and imagination in poetry, stories or fable. Just this December, Tumblr banned all depictions of sex and nudity. And while the ban excludes written erotica, one wonders how long that exemption will last.
So where are all the poets?
Our love of the erotic is what helped make us human. My own belief is that our ability to desire another imaginatively is not the byproduct of our imagination but the other way around. Our imagination is the byproduct of our sexual drive and desire—Eros. If a species doesn’t procreate, then it perishes. Nature’s trick was to use our imagination, to use our most potent organ. (As is often said: Sex is in the brain.) All our art, literature, and music is the byproduct of erotic desire. And that’s hard for the many who conceive of the human mind as made in God’s image rather than the fabricator of desire—or the devil’s as some might say. So, while some quarters are still fussily censoring our erotic imagination, the world’s earliest art, going back even to the Neanderthals, is erotic.
The world’s earliest surviving poetry is erotic—Sappho. In the relatively recently discovered and ancient trash heap at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, texts dealing with erotic subject matter seem to have been significantly more popular than religious or spiritual texts (far more popular than the words of Jesus apparently). Vicki Leòn’s observers, in her book, The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, and Longing in the Ancient World:
Again, amid the masses of papyri hidden in the ancient ruins of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, archeologists and researchers discovered a tantalizing fragment of a sex manual, a work of art by a Greek woman called Philaenis. This find provided even more shocking because it revealed that women of Greco-Roman times not only behaved as lasciviously as men, but they also wrote about the imaginative sex they’d had (and/or had fantasized). ¶ Philaneis lived during Hellenistic times, on the Greek island of Samos or perhaps or perhaps Leicidia (accounts disagree). She may have been the courtesan that inspired the coining of the word pornography. Whatever her day job, she began her literary odyssey by coming up with the killer title of her book. She called it On Indecent Kisses. her erotic manual was clearly popular (judging by its mention by other writers, plus the number of papyrus fragments found at multiple sites), and centuries later would provide inspiration for Ovid’s bestselling Ars Amatoria (the Art of Love.) [p. 37]
I’m guessing, though I don’t know, that Philaenis’s work might have been poetry, especially if it inspired Ovid. And it’s telling, perhaps, that Ovid’s work survived while Philaenis’s did not (as is the case with the erotic writing of women throughout history and cultures). Nothing silences women like suppressing erotica.
So, you would think, that in a nation where freedom of speech is enshrined in the Constitution, far more erotica might be written, and yet poets who veer from the mainstream are few and far between, and the unwillingness of sellers, publishers, and merchants to trade in erotica remains a constant: Amazon, Apple Inc., Paypal, Visa, Mastercard, for example. Never mind the hundreds of “avant garde” poetry publishers too frightened to accept erotic poetry. Choices are few.
And so, when I read about poets and/or publications touting their bona fides as writers and publishers of trending, out-of-the-mainstream poetry because they’ve invented a new typography, a new way to upend syntax and grammar, or a freer way to make free verse free all in the name of socially accepted and approved content, the whole notion of avant garde flies right out the window.
This doesn’t mean to say that writing erotic poetry is a sufficient end in and of itself. While there’s a lot of bad poetry that gets a pass because of its trending subject matter and style, there’s nothing like bad erotic poetry to spotlight the mediocrity of the poet. If you want to write erotic poetry with any kind of lasting literary value, emphasis on literary value, then it’s the least forgiving (most out of the mainstream) genre you could possibly choose. Which is to say, Erotic Literature is the most challenging and difficult genre to master. Trendy content isn’t going to save you. Not only are you sailing against the headwinds of what’s socially acceptable, let alone publishable, but erotic writing is itself a mine field of cliché and insipid sentiment. Few writers come out of that killing field alive—not even those who should know better. Curious? Here are the winners of this year’s bad sex award.
That said, and having to say it again, if you’re a poet and you really want to be avant garde and out of the mainstream, write erotic poetry. And if you really want to live in Davy Jones’s locker, use meter and rhyme to do it. And if you want to make your mark in history, make it literature.
And that brings me to All We Know of Pleasure: Poetica Erotica by Women, an anthology of contemporary women’s erotic poetry published just this year—2018. The editor is Enid Shomer. On the back cover of the book, you’ll read the following: “poetry written by women that actually excites the thinking reader.” How’s that for a claim?
Poetry that actually excites the reader.
I haven’t read the collection from cover to cover, but I’ve read enough to include it among my favorites. The poems are, that I’ve read so far, all free verse but for a poem by Molly Peacock called Lullaby, it starts:
Big as a down duvet the night
pulls the close Ontario sky
over the naked earth. Here we lie
gossiping in a circle of light
under our own big comforter,
buried nude as bulbs. I slide south
to grow your hyacinth in my mouth.
[…] [p. 40]
Now that’s something you don’t read every day. Though I wouldn’t have minded if some other poets had tried something other than free verse, the quality of their poetry is nevertheless first rate. What novelist has come close to putting together anything like Carolyn Creedon’s erotic cry?
[…]I want to lay
you, on a bed without a towel, without a curtain, without a good enough
reason. I want to wear a white dress stained with certain possibility, like an autograph
like a river’s ripe with spawn, like a signpost, like a season,
like a dam come all undone. [Wet, p. 116]
Not to miss is the nice internal rhyme of reason and season along with the pun on dam (and damn) in the last line. This is good stuff.
The anthology is divided into three parts: The Discovery of Sex, The Ordinary Day Begins, When This Old Body. Each section showcases about thirty poems, so this is not a chintzy collection. From June Sylvester Saraceno’s The Ordinary Day Begins:
at my desk
the screen blinks on
numbers begin their race
but inside me, the throb
of your last morning thrusts
you in me […] [p. 65]
To poems that aren’t strictly a celebration of temptation and pleasure:
you push your mouth against mine
i want to tell you
you have come to the wounded for healing.
like you, i am
imperfect flesh, and my
experience of violence has made me
no less likely to harm you [….]
[Kai Cheng Thom, the wounded for healing, p. 126]
But grief too. These are poems that refuse to be less than literary simply because they’re erotic. Any poet who aspires to write more than the same mainstream avant garde poetry of the last hundred-plus years, should read this book if only to learn how to avoid the pitfalls of cliché so typical of erotic sentiment. Who would have thought that BDSM could be elevated to the delirious lyricism of Sheryl St. Germain:
Tonight when I close my eyes
the sky will fill with lovers
binding the wrists of lovers,
the night will tie its blindfold
over the earth’s eyes, and I will
dream of how to speak—oh
kiss me with lips I have to imagine;
hold me in a room I can’t escape.
[Blindfolds, Ropes, p. 104]
Not that’s poetry, poetry that excites the reader, that’s truly on the fringes of the approved, and that carries on the nearly silenced voices of Sappho and Philaenis.
- The Book About 7 by 5. Good paper. Readable. One poem per page. Nice font. Brief biographies of the poets can be found at the back of the book but, unfortunately, no index.
- Comparisons This book belongs on your bookshelf alongside The Poetry of Sex, intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.
- In Translation A transliteration of Marlowe’s translation of Ovid.
- You and your Lover Poems for women to love women, for women who love men, and for men who to want to peer behind the curtains of women’s desires.
- Embarrassment An understated copy and title makes it easy to read on public transit.
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥♥♥
- See Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies for this and other reviews of Erotic Anthologies.
····from rain—her clothes clinging to her lover
····rising—the nakedness of an April
·····in the afternoon—grass clippings under her
Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:
- Erotiku by Lisa Marie Darlington
- The Poetry of Sex edited by Sophie Hannah
- The Literary Companion to Sex edited by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
You will find it below and appended to the larger review linked above.
Erotiku: erotic haiku for the sensual soul
by Lisa Marie Darlington
This is a book I really looked forward to getting my hands on. Anyone who’s been following my blog knows I love haiku and erotic poetry in general. Erotiku has only been fitfully available at Amazon, mostly OP or of Limited Availability. When I saw it available at list price with a used book dealer, I snagged it.
The cover is great; unfortunately, the poetry not so much. Like so many western authors, Darlington seems to have walked out of the haiku tutorial at ‘three lines‘. The author herself doesn’t go much beyond this description in the book’s brief introduction. She writes:
“Haiku is known to follow the metrical 5-7-5 syllable structure, yet I have revised it to take on a more contemporary form. It’s composition does not follow any kind of syllable rule, yet it still holds true to the three line pattern.”
As if that were all that made a haiku (or senryu for that matter). At the close of the introduction she’ll write that “western haiku tries to imitate old Japanese Haiku with little understanding”. The criticism, unfortunately, is applicable to the entirety of her collection.
The book is thick with one haiku per page. You’re essentially buying blank paper. Having said that, Darlington’s presentation isn’t all that different from other haiku collections. She hints at aesthetic reasons for doing so, maybe to savor each poem individually. The problem is that there’s really not that much to savor. The best senryu and haiku are rich with allusion and suggestiveness. They invite the reader to conjure what the poet leaves out. The reward is traditionally a realization of nature’s interconnectedness (haiku) or the humorous foibles of our humanity (senryu). There’s a broad spectrum between these two, but all the best haiku and senryu serve as an imaginative starting point, not end point. And that’s the problem with Darlington’s erotiku. They’re too often an end point.
Kama Sutra Art
Kama sutra art
Of intense connection
A “poem” like this (presented the way she centers them in her book) has nothing whatsoever to do with haiku or senryu. It’s little more than a statement in three lines. There’s nothing remotely erotic other than by association. The reader is likely to respond: Yes, and? This is Darlington at her least successful and unfortunately typifies, to a greater or lesser degree, too many of her haiku (which I think number around two hundred?—I’m guessing since there are no page numbers).
Arched Out in Pleasure
Her slender body
Curved to the couch
Back arched out in pleasure.
This is more typical of Darlington’s erotiku. They are descriptive prose passages in three lines. The reader will find lots and lots of these. I suppose it’s erotic/pornographic, but that’s as far as it goes—an end point rather than a starting point. There’s no sense of narrative or realization. By way of comparison, a rare (and possibly) erotic haiku by Basho:
to get wet passing by
a man is interesting
bush clover in rain
This was translated by Jane Reichhold who comments: “The euphemism ‘to get wet’ was often used in tanka where the reader could decide how this happened, from rain, dew on flowers, tears, or sexual activity.” And this, in my view, is profoundly more erotic than Darlington’s essentially three line descriptions of pornography. The reader is invited to finish Basho’s haiku. Is it really erotic? If so, what happened? Did they have a quickie? Is she wet because she was turned on or because he fucked her? Is she the bush clover? Is he the rain? Or is it simply a coincidental spring rain the makes her wet as she passes by a man?
Other issues I have with Darlington’s erotiku are her tendency toward “pigeon English”:
Around neck and shoulders
Squeezing like a heart attack.
Kindling, the passion
That burns like Hell.
Descriptive redundancy, verbosity and too many adjectives:
Your tongue walks
Your tongue walks
Heavily, up against
The surface of my naked skin.
She doesn’t need up, surface (as this is implied) or naked (also implied). It’s her skin his tongue walks on, after all, not her clothes. (Too great a use of adjectives and overstatement are probably Darlington’s most consistent failings.) Or consider the following where only needlessly appears twice:
Sexy Thong Panties
She buys sexy thong panties
To only please
And does the reader need to know they’re sexy? It’s overstatement that repeatedly mars Darlington’s poetry.
Also, whether the decision was deliberate or simply not a part of their tradition (or language), Japanese poets never made use of like or as. The idea of the simile was there, but was handled far more subtly and to greater effect. Unfortunately, the simile is all too frequent in Darlington’s poems. [Note to western poets: Haiku aren’t glorified similes. Don’t write simileku]:
His Raising Blade
His raising blade
Cutting through; like shears –
Through her wilted flower.
(There again, through needlessly appears twice.)
A bit like a broken clock though, Darlington gets it right every now and then:
Stirred by Moonlight
Stirred by moonlight
The afterglow of sex
This is actually quite good. There’s a play on the notion of afterglow that works nicely with moonlight. If only she had written more like this.
However, in fairness to Darlington and having written all this, I think it’s worth pointing out that the book is a record of her sexual awakening. As she points out in the first sentence of her Forward: “Not to [sic] long ago, I shunned myself from erotic pleasure. ¶ Not only did I find it dirty, filthy, downright skanky and vulgar – but degrading as well… ¶ Then, through my greatest despair, came the union of my lover. He showed me that through lovemaking and experiencing of such erotic explosions, that sex wasn’t something to be ashamed of, yet something to be celebrated and explored.” My heart goes out to her. Anyone brave enough to publish a book like this and to share their erotic life with other readers deserves some praise.
If you’re willing to set aside literary expectations and willing to read the book as a kind of awakening and erotic autobiography (in a series of three line poems) then I highly recommend it.
- The Book About 8 by 5. Good paper. Readable. No page numbers. No index. Sans serif font.
- Comparisons This book compares to Seduction in the 1st Degree: A Collection of Erotic Poetry, by Lisa Marie Candield. The poetry may be amateurish in both, but if one’s willing to trade that for exuberance, then both books beautifully compliment each other.
- You and your Lover Maybe you’ll be inspired?
- Embarrassment Be prepared to explain yourself if you happen to leave this on the coffee table, but then maybe that’s a good thing.
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥
The Poetry of Sex
Edited by Sophie Hannah
Finally, a title that says it and means it. In case you were wondering, this is indeed a book of poetry about sex. And to keep things short and sweet: I consider this to be one of the best anthologies available. Without hesitation, I rank it among my other favorites: intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.
The editor, Sophie Hannah, is delightfully playful in her introduction, fully aware that her selection is weighted toward the actor Daniel Craig (you’ll just have to read it). Compare Hannah’s playfulness to the starched-underwear snootiness of Peter Washington’s Everyman collection: Erotic Poems (if you want to ‘compare and contrast’). Hannah has no problem with the pornography that is, much to the apparent shock of many a literary editor, the defining attribute of sex and erotica.
The book is divided into sections with the headings:
- ‘So ask the body’
- ‘Also those desires glowing openly’
- ‘A night plucked from a hundred and one’
- ‘All our states united’
- ‘But your wife said she’
- ‘What’s in it for me?’
- ‘Oh right. You people don’t remove that bit’
- ‘God, to be wanted once more’
Each section has about 19 or 20 poems, and that adds up. Not an inconsiderable collection. The poems range from Catallus, though Shakespeare, and to contemporaries like Hannah herself, Rubbish at Adultery, and Sharon Olds (who, though I don’t much care for her mainstream poetry, easily writes some of the best erotic poetry around). I suppose what differentiates Hannah’s collection from the other anthologies is her sense of humor. Though there’s only so much scope for that preference in pre-20th century poetry, she nevertheless finds some choice nuggets. In her contemporary choices her nose for the humor in erotic literature really shines:
Their Sex Life
One failure on
Top of another
Or this poem by Irving Layton:
The idle gods for laughs gave man his rump;
In sport, so made his kind that when he sighs
In ecstasy between a woman’s thighs
He goes up and down, a bicycle pump;
And his beloved once his seed is sown
Swells like a faulty tube on one side blown.
But I also don’t want to give the impression this anthology is just for laughs. It’s not. The difference is in allowing that sex isn’t always about overheated stares, cataclysmic orgasms or the ecstasy of “spiritual”, quote-unquote, unions. Sometimes sex is just sex—fun, funny, and as dirty as you want it to be. It’s books like this that persuade me that all the best writing of the latter 20th and early 21st century is in erotica. The rest, in my opinion, is largely a morass of mediocrity.
- The Book About 7 by 5. Good paper. Readable. One poem per page. Nice font. The best of index of any erotic anthology to date: Index of Poets, First Lines and Titles. I mean, to all the others: How hard is that to do?
- Comparisons This book belongs on your bookshelf alongside intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.
- In Translation One or two from the antiquities.
- You and your Lover Got a poem you want her to read? All you have to do is remember the poet, the title or the first line.
- Embarrassment Only keep this on the coffee around toddlers who can’t read titles.
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥♥♥
The Literary Companion to Sex
by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
This is a book published in 1992 and I’m not sure why I haven’t gotten round to reviewing it until now. It’s easily one of the most comprehensive anthologies of not just poetry but of sex and erotica in literature of any kind. In other words, you’ll find not just passages of poetry but passages from the Bible, Drama, Elizabethan pamphlets, short stories and novels. At 415 pages, there’s a wealth of material grouped, as the introduction puts it, into “five wide periods”:
- The Ancient World
- The Middle Ages and the Renaissance
- The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century
- The Nineteenth Century
- The Twentieth Century
Among other luminaries, you will find the earily 20th century’s great egotist, Frank Harris. Going back to the ancient world you will read passages from Aristophanes, Ovid, Terence, and Apuleius. Selections from the Middle Ages include a literary passage from the Chinese author Wang Shih-Chen but are mostly limited to examples from the English. The author, in the forward, suggests a reason for this. She writes:
“The manual type of book can be seriously boring. Even at fourteen, I can remember all those ‘yonis’ and ‘lingams’ of The Kama Sutra turning me off, not on, as I perused it under my desk during scripture lessons. It was hard for me to find a likeable passage in either that or The Perfumed Garden. ¶ In the end I decided that my criteria for choosing would be these: realism, humour, or the unusual—preferably all three. It was important to find realistic writing, simply because there’s so little of it.”
Fair enough. I’m inclined to agree with her, though one might fairly ask if her selections don’t reflect her own cultural biases. I’m not asserting they do, but the question arises. Are readers in India turned on, rather than off, by yonis and lingams? — or do they also prefer cunts and cocks in their literature?
Some other observations she makes are, I think, worth mentioning.
On the ancient world:
“The writers of the ancient world, in the main, proved to be the most open and unashamed about sex, although a slightly prurient, shocked tone crept into their news reportage (the sensationalist historians, Suetonius and Procopius). But are journalists of today any different?”
On the Middle Ages:
“The Middle Ages and the Rennaisance, although bawdy, were overshadowed by religion and doom. Conversely, their religious writing often had sexual overtones. The fate in hell of the aduleress in Gesta Romanorum provides a memorably kinky image of tortured womankind that must have provided good masturbation material for pious monks everywhere.”
On the 17th century:
“By the time we reach the seventeenth century, dildoes, and jokes about them, are big news, as are venereal diseases. The Restoration and the eighteenth century provide a period of frankness similar to that of the ancient world. It’s probably the easiest period in which to find good sex writing.”
On the 19th century:
“I knew from the start that the nineteenth century would give me the biggest problems. Apart from some good French literature and Byron, what was I to include? Literature became schizophrenic during Victoria’s reign. Sex didn’t happen in official literature, but it happened nonstop – to an unrealistic extent – in The Pearl and other underground writing. Kinkiness was in. ¶ Apart from mainstream writing and underground pornography, there’s a third tradition in the nineteenth century — one that’s often ignored. Isolated individuals had begun to collect folklore. Writing for ‘the learned reder’, these writers could be a little franker than those who wrote for the mass market, like Dickens. And mercifully, their style is usually of far higher quality than that of the average nineteenth-century pornographer. These folk tales hark back to older traditions, keeping alive the bawdy spirit of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”
On the 20th century:
“By the twentieth century we are into mixed territory. I sensed curious affinities across the eras — Apollinaire’s erotic novel with Rochester’s Sodom; one of e.e. cummings’s poems with an anonymous seventeenth-century one; Eskimo Nell and Procopius’s Empress Theodora — another fucker of cosmic proportions. There is also, alas, a great deal of bad writing. Authors frequently make great claims for their own honesty, only to get bogged down in prurience and their own embarrassment. I avoided all passages that talked about waves beating on shores. (That sort of writing’s only permissible if the couple are doing it on a beach.) Still, on the plus side, there is a tremendous range of ideas and experience in the writing of the twentieth century — everything from bestiality to vibrators.”
And that ought to give you a flavor for the kind of erotic writing Pitt-Kethley has anthologized. If you’re looking for a collection offering literature besides poetry, you can’t do better than this (as far as I know). Consider this the best anthology of erotic literature currently available.
- The Book About 8 by 5. Acid paper. Will yellow over time. Readable. Nice font. An index of authors only.
- Comparisons For the erotic connoisseur, this book belongs on your bookshelf alongside the poetry of sex, intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.
- In Translation Mainly antiquities, Chinese and some French.
- You and your Lover Not the kind of tome to snuggle between yourself and your lover, but if you’re wondering whether your great (to the tenth power) grandparents liked it the way like you like it, this is the book.
- Embarrassment A high brow addition to your accidentally discovered coffee table collection. Your guests may want to borrow it. Your only embarrassment will be in having to ask for its return — please?
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥♥
····without rain—the dirt as white
········as the sun
····lovemaking—the smell of snow melting
A new edition of T.S. Eliot’s poetry is going to be published and according to The Guardian it will include at least three heretofore unpublished erotic poems. The poems were written for Eliot’s second wife Valierie Fletcher. She was a tall girl. He was 68. She was 30. And her nipples were just the right height when sitting in his lap:
I love a tall girl. When she sits on my knee
She with nothing on, and I with nothing on
I can just take her nipple in my lips
And stroke it with my tongue. Because she is a tall girl…
The poem closes:
Her breasts are like ripe pears that dangle
Above my mouth
Which reaches up to take them.
In another poem, Eliot – who took a vow of chastity in 1928 after being confirmed into the Church of England – celebrates the “miracle of sleeping together” as he “touch[es] the delicate down beneath her navel”.
And that’s about all that I can squeak out of the Guardian. The various articles are all reporting the upcoming edition with a suitably detached air of scholarly inquisitiveness. Since the poet’s death, his sexuality seems to be a much discussed topic among the poet’s cognoscenti—call it “ivory tower tabloid-ism”. Valerie’s own statement on the matter is admirably direct:
“Valerie, who was 5ft 8in (1.7m) tall, kept control of his estate until her death three years ago when the notebooks came to light. She hinted publicly that their sex life was just fine, after an interviewer asked why his first marriage had failed. “There was nothing wrong with Tom, if that’s your implication,” she said.”
I’ll be buying that edition soon as it comes out.
Reviewed and added the following book to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:
- Naked Soul: The Erotic Love Poems by Salil Jha
You will find it below and appended to the larger review linked above.