All We Know of Pleasure

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 Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs

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.

All We Know of LoveAnd 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
continue, echo
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.

Sex ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Art N/A
Romance ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Poetry ♥♥♥♥♥♥