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Phalluses and fallacies: Germaine Greer on the poetry of sex

All poetry is driven by sex, whether or not it acknowledges the impulse.

The Poetry of Sex
Edited by Sophie Hannah
Viking, 220pp, £14.99

The Poetry of Sex is a pretty coy title for a collection of occasional verse purporting to be about rumpy pumpy – if that is what Sophie Hannah’s latest anthology is about. “Sex” is slippery stuff; I am reminded of John Lennon’s “Four in Hand”, in which one of four masturbators whose fantasies are being projected on to a screen keeps visualising the Lone Ranger instead of Brigitte Bardot. He gets off on the Lone Ranger but the Lone Ranger ruins it for the other three.

One of many equivalents of the Lone Ranger in The Poetry of Sex is “La Noche Oscura” (“Dark Night”) by Saint John of the Cross, of which Hannah supplies the original Spanish, followed by the translation by Edgar Allison Peers (unattributed), apparently believing the poem to be an account of a sexual encounter. It could certainly be interpreted by unbelievers as evidence of sublimation of sexual tension but that is not what the poet thought it was. Robert Frost too might be surprised to find that his sonnet “Putting in the Seed” is assumed to be about ejaculation. Why the condemnation of the double standard (“Stupid Men”) by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz should be included in the original Spanish together with the translation by Alan S Trueblood (unacknowledged) is similarly incomprehensible.

Other poets are not so lucky. “Carmen 16” of Catullus is not given in the Latin original but in a clumsily inflated version by the American poet G M Palmer, which ought to mean that Palmer and not Catullus is given as the author. Though Catullus threatens to “bugger and stuff” two of his friends, the poem is not actually about sex at all. Penetration in poetry, as in actual speech, is usually a metaphor.

Versification is as sexual a phenomenon as birdsong; it is typically male display, elaborated more to dishearten and drive off competition by other males than to seduce the oblivious female, whether she be an illiterate human or a foraging hen bird. The male display is sexual but it is not about having or doing sex; it seeks to elaborate a fundamentally banal and momentary interaction by artifice and invention. Once penetration has been achieved, silence falls – for bird and poet.

Poems that enact or depict sexual behaviour seldom have actual sexual congress as their true subject. The golden age of sex poetry in English is the 17th century, when rapacious paraphilias and perversities were made to stand for creeping absolutism and its discontents. All kinds of disgusting behaviours were attributed to courtiers, peers, politicians and monarchs, and described in often puke-making detail. Unfortunately Hannah knows nothing of the venerable tradition of Fescennine verse. The most brilliant examples, Nashe’s “The Choice of Valentines” or Rochester’s “A Ramble in St James’s Park”, are way beyond her ken and hence not to be found in this anthology, which is a shame as they are not otherwise easy to find.

Contemplation of other people’s swiving being seldom arousing or even entertaining, Hannah seems to have eventually given up trying to organise her material and simply imposed eight section titles consisting of odd lines from the poems included. The poems are undated and there is no information about their authors or the traditions of which they are a part. Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” bestrides the first section of the collection like a camp Colossus. No sooner has the reader emerged from beneath this onslaught than she is confronted by Whitman in even less convincing mode trumpeting that a woman waits for him:

I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you
I pour the stuff to start sons and daughter fit for these States, I press with slow rude muscle,

I brace myself effectually, I listen to no entreaties,

I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me.

To interpret the I of the poem as Whitman himself would be to blunder; Whitman was no rapist, but this is the song of the rapist nonetheless.

Commercial pornography, keen to flatter its consumer, always exaggerates the role of the penis; the speaker of Whitman’s poem, best described as a personified phallus, trumpets that he is “stern, acrid, large, undissuadable”. Such fustian, when it is not offensive, is simply tiresome. Whitman’s braying is followed by “My Black Triangle” by Grace Nichols, who can manage no more than feeble tinkle (pardon the pun) in comparison:

My black triangle is so rich
that it flows over
on to the dry crotch
of the world.

Hannah hopes her collection will be the raunchiest poetry anthology of the year, a humble enough aim to be sure. In fact it is far less raunchy than the average collection of rugby songs. A classic such as “The Great Wheel” would kick the whole collection into touch.

Hannah is happy to warn readers elsewhere that she is an “unfashionable reader who loves poems that rhyme, scan and are about something”. There is certainly a plethora of rhymes amid the 130 poems here assembled, some of them utterly excruciating:

Bloody Hell! OMG! Sacré bleu! It’s Barbara!
As sumptuous and stylish as a Gothic candelabra.
I want to dock my dinghy in the safety of your harbour.
A bidet full of ice would not begin to cool my ardour.

How Hannah got this repellent doggerel from a poet as engaging as Luke Wright must remain a mystery, for her source is nowhere acknowledged. The Poetry of Sex offers no help to the inquiring reader; for example, there is no hint that W H Auden never admitted writing “The Platonic Blow (A Day for a Lay)” or that this ebullient burlesque fantasy on an encounter with a flesh-and-blood Tom of Finland character first came to light in 1965 when it was published in New York by Ed Sanders in Fuck You: a Magazine of the Arts. Erotic verse has a history; a great many songs of the schlong are responses and elaborations on hymns to other quims. In Hannah’s anthology the poems are not dated; it would be nice to know who the Elizabeth Barrett who contributed “Intimacy” might be – or at least be able to be sure that she is not the Elizabeth Barrett who married Robert Browning. (She isn’t.)

Great poems are hidden amid 21st-century dross like diamonds in a dunghill. “Foeda est in coitu” in Ben Jonson’s masterful version (“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short … ”) is confidently attributed to someone called Gaius Petronius, apparently assumed to be the name of the author of the Satyricon. Petronius is certainly not the author of “Foeda est in coitu”, which can be traced no further back than the now vanished Codex Bellovacensis of the ninth century. Simply including the date of Jonson’s version might have directed the curious reader to the dozens of versions of the same neo-Latin fragment attempted by the tribe of Ben, some of them hilarious.

W B Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” are so enmired in the surrounding dreariness that they cannot shine forth. Philip Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” has no place in this company either, especially as, though masturbation is the principal 21st-century sex form and Larkin was addicted to it, not a single poem in the anthology deals with it. Not that it’s always easy to work out just what is going on; most of the poems are disfigured by the same coyness as the title of the collection. Marilyn Hacker means to tell lesbian sex as it is but this is the first quatrain of her sonnet:

First I want to make you come in my hand
while I watch you and kiss you, and if you cry,
I’ll drink your tears while, with my whole hand, I
hold your drenched loveliness contracting …

The combination of bullying tone with hyperbolic euphemism is worthy of Whitman himself. There’s more emotional subtlety in the mini classic “Wham!/Bam!/Thank you ma’am” than there is in Hacker’s whole pseudo-sonnet.

Hannah has included a single poem of her own in her anthology. “Rubbish at Adultery” is pretty good, though it is short-changing it to describe it as “poetry of sex”. It is actually invective, another medium that makes copious use of sexual reference without being itself about sex. Its counterpart, “Hombres Necios” (‘Stupid Men’) by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is printed in a different and apparently unrelated section of the collection.

Another gem is Gavin Ewart’s good-humoured description of the essential role of slap-and-tickle in the workplace, demurely titled “Office Friendships”:

Eve is madly in love with Hugh
And Hugh is keen on Jim.
Charles is in love with very few
And few are in love with him.

Myra sits typing notes of love
With romantic pianist’s fingers.
Dick turns his eyes to the heavens above
Where Fran’s divine perfume linger.

Nicky is rolling eyes and tits
And flaunting her wiggly walk.
Everybody is thrilled to bits
By Clive’s suggestive talk.

Sex suppressed will go berserk,
But it keeps us all alive.
It’s a wonderful change from wives and work
And it ends at half past five.

Given current pieties about sexual interaction at work, it would have helped if Hannah had supplied us with the date of the poem’s composition, but all we can learn from the acknowledgments section is that permission for its reprinting was given by Margo Ewart. If Hannah had wanted to present the raunchiest collection possible she probably should have included Gavin Ewart’s “Phallus in Wonderland”, which is hardly ever reprinted.

Sex is as difficult and various as convers­ation; it is to be found on every page of a novel by Jane Austen. It drives every poem that was ever written, whether it makes reference to incidences of sexual congress or not. It is not surprising that when Hannah began to look for the poetry of sex she lost her way, for she was afloat on a vast sea of human endeavour with no guide. An historic overview might have given her something to hang on to, but the attempt to organise such lawless material was always bound to fail. Sex knows no bounds and respects no boundaries. It was folly to think of clapping it up in a single book.

Germaine Greer’s most recent book is White Beech: the Rainforest Years (Bloomsbury, £25)

 

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle